Review by Shelli Park
Entering the theater, the experience begins. Early black spirituals take the mind back in time. They play to a dimly lit stage: a pre-Civil War office, simply appointed, and oriented at a refreshing angle. A few trunks are stacked in the room with nameplates denoting that we are in the office of the title character: Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler.
As the lights come up, a well-seasoned man in high-ranking Union colors sits at his desk, letter in hand. He is processing the contents of the letter as a subordinate officer enters with pressing information. This initial exchange opens the window into the thought processes of a man, Maj. Gen. Butler, who would profoundly influence the direction of the Civil War.
Burien Actors Theatre’s season opener is a Northwest Premiere. â€˜Ben Butler’, a witty and eye-opening historical comedy, is written by Richard Strand, an award-winning playwright, and is directed by Rachel Rene.
â€˜Ben Butler’ takes a poignant look at a tumultuous and uncertain time period in U.S. history. This moment is distilled by Strand into a series of conversations which take place over the course of a few days. Rene guides the action in skilled way, directing the actors so that their placement on stage underscores the nuances of the character relationships.
The two main characters, Maj. Gen. Butler, played by Michael Mendonsa and Shepherd Mallory, and an escaped slave, played by Sharif Ali, engage in tentative exploration of the other. The two are a mixture of intellectually curious, stubborn, and insecure. Strand uses the dialogue to construct a very satisfying experience using wit, psychology, and humor to bring about a difficult but ethical conclusion. Human weakness is on display, but is accepted as a part of the human condition. The play is generous in its ability to navigate what we think we know until we find that we don’t know what we don’t know. In the end, knowledge and open curiosity about â€˜other’ is the key to opening the closed doors of the heart and mind. What we may think of as â€˜other’ and entirely alien to ourselves, often is more similar than that we want to admit.
Mendonsa and Ali are wonderful counterpoints. They play off of each other as in a dynamic musical score, complete with poignant pauses,, pizzicato, allegro, forte, and an appropriate amount of dissonance which, finally, resolves.
Lieutenant Kelly (Mark Fox) is the comedic foil in the equation, and his evolution of thought gives hope that humans can indeed learn and grow, all the while making us laugh. Fox does a wonderful job in this role. His manner alternates between appropriately irritating and quite endearing.
Major Cary (Dave Tucker) is the villain. Tucker’s slow, vexed manner is successful in creating the necessary unsympathetic character.
Ben Butler is a timely play as we navigate, on a local and national level, the idea of us vs. them. We are, as it turns out, all part of the human race. We are all a part of the same community, on both a local and national level.
The BAT production of Ben Butler is wonderfully done. It both provokes thought and thoroughly entertains. The talent is top notch and is well worth taking the time to enjoy!
The Burien Actors Theatre production also features specialty drinks themed to the show, as well as plenty of free on-site parking.
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at Burien Actors Theatre, 14501 4th Ave SW in Burien (map below).
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Ticket prices range from $7 to $20. Student tickets are just $10. Enjoy an opening weekend deals: Tickets on opening night, Sept. 29, include free admission to the opening night party. On Saturday, Sept. 30 all tickets are half price. On Sunday, Oct. 1, known as Seven Buck Sunday, admission is just $7.
For tickets, special deals or other information, go to www.burienactorstheatre.org or call 206-242-5180.
BAT is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity and operates on revenue from ticket sales, donations, grants, sponsorships and volunteers.