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Kavinoky's 'Ben Butler' offers amusing look at Civil War history

Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler does not suffer fools gladly.

This point is sledge-hammered into audiences' heads in the opening scene of Richard Strand's "Ben Butler," a lighthearted play about a heavy period in American history running through March 25 in the Kavinoky Theatre.

In that scene, Butler (John Fredo) berates and belittles his West Point-trained lieutenant (Christopher Evans) to the point of tedium. Like the lawyer he is, the newly minted Union Army general quibbles over minuscule points of protocol and semantics, taking every opportunity to lord his superior knowledge and authority over his subordinate and prove himself utterly insufferable in the process.

This is by design -- to create a contrast for his emergent humanity in subsequent scenes -- but it makes that design far too obvious.

Thankfully, this overwritten opening finally dissolves into much more tolerable -- even charming -- dialogue about the play's central question: Should Butler provide sanctuary for a trio of escaped slaves into his fort in apparent violation of the execrable Fugitive Slave Act (signed into law in 1850 by Buffalo's own Millard Fillmore)?

The answer, and its effect on the war, is recorded in history.

But the conversations that led to it are not, and Strand uses the question as the opening serve in a fascinating volley of ideas between two worthy intellectual opponents. They are Butler and escaped slave Sheppard Mallory, played with vitality and humor by Patrick Coleman, a recent graduate of Elon University who also appeared in the Kavinoky's production of "Mamma Mia!"

Fredo inhabits the role with his usual confidence and command, flecking his character's omnipresent swagger with subtle moments of insecurity and humor. Through Fredo's interpretation, we come to see Butler not as a braggart in over his head, but a deep thinker trying to solve an impossible problem out loud.

Coleman, for his part, imbues Mallory with equal parts defiance and charm, the better to disabuse Butler of his simplistic notions about black Americans.

Evans, as the ever-exasperated lieutenant, forced to endure Butler's peculiarities, flashes of temper and disquisitions on legal minute, is a delight to watch. So is Tom Laughlin as a cartoonish Confederate general sent to negotiate for the release of the slaves. Together, this uncommonly even cast does wonders with material that might seem cloying or overly constructed in other hands.

The spectacle unfolds in Butler's simply appointed office -- a military trunk, a cluttered desk, a fireplace smudged by ashes -- rendered with characteristic skill by David King.

There is a legitimate concern, in this era of renewed attention to the enduring effects of white supremacy, about the continued preference for narratives that privilege white heroism over black struggle and achievement. While on its face there's nothing wrong with giving praise where praise is due, the cumulative effect of these narratives -- "Lincoln," "The Blind Side," "Dangerous Minds," "The Help" -- is to background the suffering, ingenuity, struggle and undersung heroism of black lives.

It's not fair to blame this on any one playwright, film director, theater or author. And among offenders, Strand's piece is hardly the worst -- especially because of the pains it takes to represent its single black character as a complex human representing a complex group of people.

When viewed through this lens, thanks to Strand's generally tight writing and excellent performances from this cast, "Ben Butler" more than merits a look.

Theater Review

3 stars (out of 4)

"Ben Butler" runs through March 25 in the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $38 to $42. Call 829-7668 or visit kavinokytheatre.org.

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