Tuesday, April 17, 2012

THE SCHLEP - 'The March' at Steppenwolf Theatre

(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

The Civil War was, and still is, the bloodiest war in United States history. The combined casualties of both the Union and of the Confederacy totaled nearly 620,000 men, a towering number. Fields, forests, and prairie became blood-soaked mass burial grounds, and the petty conflict ushered in the outdrawn and enormously costly Reconstruction era, the consequences of which are felt to this very moment. Must Mitt Romney pick a southern running mate? Deep wounds that have yet to completely heal over were forged, and a nation's captive moral division was exposed raw.

And nearly two hundred years later, with just enough distance from the conflict, yet still carrying a healthy amount of residual relevance, the events of the Civil War are ripe for dramatization. Actually southern pageant plays make a yearly tradition of it, depicting the war gallantly with an exaggerated slant towards the Confederacy to a cacophony of yee haws, hoots, and hollers. In all likelihood, your uncle is a Civil War reenactor, gathering with his cronies en masse on the anniversaries of battles, and is strangely serious about all of it.

So how, with such plentiful opportunity for entertainment, political discourse, and historical appeal has Steppenwolf Theatre's The March, which opened on Sunday, gone so terribly awry?

Depicting General William Tecumseh Shermans yearlong campaign of destruction in Georgia, Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's The March, written and directed by Frank Galati, is a boring, clumsy squandering of plentiful resources achieving nothing more than some well-designed, eye-pleasing costumes by Virgil C. Johnson. The play's narrative borders on incoherency, while purporting to not only be coherent, but also compelling. Compelling, it is not. Dull and dusty might be better words to describe this March; or rather this outdated, stagnant trudge.

And this trudge is undertaken by nearly forty characters, inhabited by a super-sized cast of twenty-six actors. Amidst the sheer enormity of the war and of the cast, the play narrowly hones in on four subplots: a freed slave named Pearl (Shannon Matesky); two escaped convicts and Confederate deserters, Will (Stephen Louis Grush) and Arly (Ian Barford); the daughter of a Confederate judge who takes up work in a hospital, Emily (Carrie Coon); and Sherman himself (Harry Groener).

Their against-the-grain experiences shed light on the human cost of war – or at least attempt to. Their stories, when understandable, tend to be lost behind a protective layer of endless philosophy and romanticized language, part Doctorow and part Galati, that paints an awfully pretty picture of the deadliest war in our nation’s history.

The production also feels awkwardly unfinished, most notably among the actors. The ensemble monotonously breezes through their sticky dialogue without any perceivable commitment, and the lead actors get trapped in Old South pastoralism right from the offset.

Ian Barford and Stephen Louis Grush, who I scornfully began referring to as Tom and Huck, play Will and Arly, two too lovable escaped convicts and Confederate deserters disguised as soldiers. Their storyline is endearing, but altogether not very intriguing. Barford finds the funny and lathers on mint julep charm for the greater part of the play, but falls quite short in moments of seriousness. Despite its shortcomings, Will and Arly are the most watchable characters onstage.

Harry Groener, seen last season in The Madness of George III at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, plays General Sherman with the quirky gravitas of the Wizard of Oz. His offbeat mannerisms lead me to believe that his portrayal aimed to satirize the long-dead general, but then he would rattle off a few serious historical epilogues that muddied my perception. Sherman is just kind of there.  Shannon Matesky's Pearl, a biracial slave who, at the play's opening, achieves her freedom, never moves an inch beyond awestruck. Her perpetual naivety does not serve a three-hour story of supposed growth.     

Much displeasure over lack of invigorating content could be quickly forgiven by a dose of spectacle. And given Galati's relatively recent credits like Ragtime and The Pirate Queen, a cast that could double as a militia, and a thematically mammoth time period, visual excitement seems inherent. However, the play is aesthetically bland, appearing mostly whitish gray and dead shades of blue. James Schuettes efficiently designed set, evokes the right amount of period, but blends the individual textures of location into mush.  

Adaptor-Director Frank Galati is no virgin when it comes to E.L. Doctorow. He memorably directed the musical adaptation of Doctorow's Ragtime on Broadway in 1998, and has been interested in adapting The March for years. But his adaptation is not stage-ready and his staging is a mixed bag as well.

Calamitous scenes are rendered sterile, and noticeable inconsistencies in a few slow motion sequences appear amateurish. Accompanied by Josh Schmidts sound design of loud disjointed sound bites, the incomprehensible violence of the Civil War is muted. The grandest cautionary tale in American history is, here, a pleasant afterthought.-Johnny Oleksinski   

'The March' Adapted by Frank Galati from the novel by E.L. Doctorow runs at Steppenwolf Theatre through June 10.