Why, when we think of “classics,” and especially “Christmas classics,” do we gravitate toward Great Britain? Of course that region’s written history extends further into the past, and their Pagan traditions have seeded many of our modern holiday expressions, from mistletoe to the Christmas tree. Of course most of our best-known carols hail from Britain—and one in particular, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, rules the winter theater. All of these yuletide flourishes are a tough act to follow, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Surely there are other stories, American stories, that can offer moral authority and spiritual enlightenment at Christmas time.
A Civil War Christmas, Artists Rep’s holiday offering, is many degrees removed from Scrooge, skipping across the pond to the banks of the Potomac River in 1864, near the end of the Civil War. As historical fiction, the play certainly passes muster, proving (as Hamilton has) that American history runs Britain plenty of competition when it comes to inspirational characters, interesting dialects and fluffy blouses.
There’s certainly a lot of action in this ensemble-cast drama—arguably too much to follow, and definitely enough to feature diverse perspectives and cover every mood: A Jewish Union soldier (played by a sympathetic John San Nicolas) lies dying in a hospital, attended bedside by the poet Walt Whitman. A free Black seamstress (played warmheartedly by Ayanna Berkshire ) grieves her lost son as she tailors clothes that would once have fit him. A free Black blacksmith (played by Vin Shambry, haunted and volatile) hammers away and plots revenge for his kidnapped wife Rose (played by a luminous Crystal Ann Muñoz). John Wilkes Booth (played by Val Landrum, winkingly hamming up the actor/assassin’s ego) plans to ambush President Abe Lincoln (a stately-yet-affable Ted Rooney), while Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Susannah Mars, full spectrum) wrestles her wayward moods as she searches for a white house Christmas tree. Two southern slaves, a mother and daughter (Andrea Whittle and Miya Zolkoske), become separated as they travel north to freedom. A young boy (Kai Tomizawa) and his horse (San Nicolas again, adept since Trevor at animal roles) undertake a heroic mission alone. And that accounts for maybe a third of the play’s characters and scenarios!
It would be impressive if not impossible for any audience member to learn all of the names and details of the many historical figures Civil War Christmas depicts from one viewing of the show. What’s more likely is that it would bolster one’s prior or future Civil War study to put faces and action to the era’s many factions. In summary, while there’s educational value here, don’t expect to redeem it all in one sitting.
Though this is a regional and not a national premiere, Artists Rep’s version can still claim a “first”: with the approval of playwright Paula Vogel, they’ve made fresh musical arrangements of the various carols, spirituals, battle hymns and folk ballads that accompany the show. Music director Andrew Bray asked eight well-established Portland-based musicians to interpret the show’s 24-odd songs and refrains (originally selected by Daryl Waters) in their own various styles, then set them on instruments and assigned parts to actors, revising as necessary until all music could be generated right onstage.
For Bray and the play’s director Paul Angelo, the setup must feel familiar; the two also collaborated on Stumptown Stages’ Parade in 2014 with a similar style of instrumentation and level of stage/musician integration. The quality and tightness of that performance have yet to be paralleled by this one, but that’s not surprising as that show’s singers and live band were exceptionally deft. When ensemble casts are assigned the music in a play that’s not exactly or completely “a musical,” the last few moving parts tend to shuffle into place during the run.
For some songs, the new arrangements bring exciting embellishment and/or arresting variation to their originals. A suspenseful, halting,”What Child Is This” puts the audience on the edge of their seats before whirling into a key-changing, crescendo-building frenzy. A minor-to-major transitioning “Yellow Rose of Texas” brings the piece new emotional range, and a particularly dynamic “There is a Balm in Gilead” builds from a cappella to ensemble call-response.
Other songs emerge from the creative process worse than they went in. “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” has been reduced to one incessantly repeated (and dull) melodic phrase, while “The Holly and The Ivy” seems to have come through the wash with its lyrics all bunched and strung awkwardly across a flattened melody line. No matter! These carols are so changed that the audience members I polled couldn’t recall the original tunes for comparison, and hence would never miss them.
Many of Civil War Christmas‘s best moments are buoyed by background music, played expertly on flute, piano, percussion, cello, and torn-apart piano (or as the cast calls it, “piano harp”). And when these elements swell gradually into a song, the effect is pure magic.
This is the kind of show that a child will attend raptly, but recall piecemeal, saying things like “…then the lady found the little kid,” or “then they were trying to catch the president.” But so is A Christmas Carol, and so, to an incredible extent, is The Nutcracker. And adults’ retention of such multi-layered stories may not be any better. But immersion in The Human Experience while the show is happening should bring satisfaction enough, and what’s more, the next time we open our history books or our songbooks, these classics may sink in a little better.
A Civil War Christmas runs through December 23 at Artists Repertory Theatre.