THE KILLER ANGELS
a play by Karen Tarjan
based on the novel by Michael Shaara
directed by Janice L Blixt
for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 2016 Mainstage Season
Michigan Shakespeare Festival
"Blixt made the most of the theatricality of this play. This is especially true for the dramatic Pickett’s Charge and the choice to leave the stage littered with its after-effects until the end of the play. She blends music, actor doubling and staging to create an intimate and powerful experience." - Encore Michigan
"An elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown. Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. -PULP, Ann Arbor
Baughman Theatre - Jackson MI
Village Theater of Cherry Hill - Canton, MI
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"The Killer Angels" takes us back to Gettysburg
by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan
July 18, 2016
JACKSON, Mich.–The Michigan Shakespeare Festival made a brave choice this year in its selection of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels, based on the Civil War novel by Michael Shaara.
Not only does it add a second history to their repertoire this year, but it marks the first time they’ve done a work by a living playwright—or a female playwright.
The Killer Angels is very Shakespearean in scope. It has echoes of his histories with the emphasis on the generals who choreographed the battles and the motivations that drove them. It is peopled with a vast cast of characters, calling upon actors to frequently double and the audience to keep a scorecard of who is who. It also covers a vast ground, switching quickly between 24 scenes. It is a history, but it also has shades of tragedy as we see great men brought down by their flaws and the awful consequences that people suffer from their decisions.
Directed by Janice L. Blixt, The Killer Angels tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, mostly through the eyes of the generals, but also occasionally showing the perspective of the common soldier. In a nod to Greek tragedies, the play has its own chorus, the “troubadour” played by Ian Geers.
Geers launches the play with a haunting version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” backed by drum and fife. He’s eventually joined by the whole company, filling the stage in their white shirts, singing mostly a capella in a haunting manner that accurately sets the tone for the deadly battle to come.
Geers narrates between scenes, letting the audience in on the passage of time and sometimes the movement of place and setting. He sings and plays the guitar and is part of what makes this show so theatrical in nature. He brings the audience along with the play and does so with an energy and pacing that matches the rest of the production.
The entire ensemble moves seamlessly through this production, constantly changing costumes and taking on new roles. They sang, they marched, they fought and they died. Much of Blixt’s staging hearkened back to the set pieces of a Shakespeare show, with people moving deliberately across the stage and filling it to create emotional effect.
Speaking of brave choices, in this play about a battle fought over slavery and state’s rights, Blixt chose to go with color-blind casting. It was at first disconcerting to see a black Confederate officer, but so strong were the performances that it worked and it was easy to quickly see beyond color.
Tobin Hissong, in addition to being part of the ensemble, played the roles of the two opposing generals—Gen. Lee and Gen. Meade, each commanding the entire forces of their side. His performance as Lee was most memorable, in part because Tarjan gives him the meatiest story to work with. Hissong portrayed a sick man who was principled and devoted to Virginia, but also beset with bad intelligence, the failure of underlings and the challenge of battle tactics that didn’t achieve their goals.
Hissong created a Lee who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. He was sympathetic and likeable, but deeply flawed in his eagerness to bring the war to a close and achieve victory for the South even if it meant abandoning the good advice of such generals as Longstreet.
Alan Ball had to make some of the quickest changes, sometimes from one person to the next on a single cot, changing just by rolling over and assuming a different body posture. His characters were all distinct and his storytelling outstanding.
Brandon A. Wright put in an emotional performance as Brig. Gen. Armistead, a man called upon to lead the fated Pickett’s charge. He effectively showed the fear of a doomed soldier, one who would obey the orders he knew would mean massacre for his men. He put a very human face on the tactics of war and the losses that the other generals chose to make as a matter of course.
Robert McLean showed the frustrations of Lt. Gen. Longstreet, a man who had hoped Gen. Lee would take a more defensive approach to warfare—choosing the best ground on which to fight and making the enemy come to them. He remained loyal and obedient as a good soldier, but showed the conflict endured when forced to do something against one’s better judgment. McLean did a good job of humanizing not just Longstreet, but the act of warfare itself and the difficult decisions that come along with it.
On the Union side, some of the most interesting exchanges came between Dwight Tolar’s Col. Chamberlain and his brother, Lt. Tom Chamberlain, played by Eric Eilerson. Chamberlain led the famed bayonet charge down the hill when defending against a Confederate attempt to take the far left flank of the Union forces. He also converted mutineering soldiers into his regiment, swelling his numbers, consolidating his forces, and making their success at Gettysburg a possibility.
Eilerson and Tolar had great chemistry, and their relationship made the bayonet charge even more dramatic. Tolar was professorial–his Chamberlain listening carefully to his soldiers and addressing their grievances with faith that they would reciprocate under fire. He was thoughtful and displayed a desperation in doing what had to be done, a choice far more effective than displaying him as a macho, hero-hungering man.
Thorough and thoughtful research was displayed by Costume Designer Patty Branam who created multiple costumes for each character, each reflecting a historical accuracy without sacrificing storytelling. Each actor has a base white shirt and pants with suspenders for “chorus” numbers and when moving set pieces or singing. They then put on Union or Confederate jackets in which the number of buttons often communicated rank.
Kate Hopgood is the music director for the role, stepping away from her usual job of composing original music for Shakespearean plays to one of arranging traditional Civil War songs and directing the actors to perform them throughout the show. There was a raw passion to the music that helped to tell the story and establish mood and motivation.
Blixt made the most of the theatricality of this play. Her director notes refer to the choices that “create an epic for live theatre, not film or tv.” This is especially true for the dramatic Pickett’s Charge and the choice to leave the stage littered with its after-effects until the end of the play. She blends music, actor doubling and staging to create an intimate and powerful experience.
The Killer Angels is more the story of a battle than of any one individual, but it never lets the audience forget that battles are directed and fought by people and the consequences of each choice–each argument and reaction are visited upon all who participate. For a country that has been long at war, it is a powerful reminder that tactics and strategies tell only part of the story of a battle, and that motives for going to war can spring from powerful convictions on both sides.
"MICHIGAN SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL'S THE KILLER ANGELS"
by Jenn McKee for Pulp
August 2, 2016
CANTON, Mich.– One thing you’ll inevitably think about while watching the Michigan stage premiere production of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels – presented by Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and inspired by the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel of the same name by Michael Shaara – is how 19th century American warfare and military strategy look nothing like our contemporary conflicts; yet even so, brutality, death, and nightmarish confusion on the battlefield remain constants.
Focused on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg – cited by many as a key turning point for the victorious (uh, spoiler alert?) Union Army – Killer Angels introduces us to military leaders as well as infantrymen on both sides of the war.
How? By double- and triple-casting the production’s 12 actors. And while this casting instruction/suggestion is wholly practical, it nonetheless makes following the play’s already-complicated narrative that much harder. Indeed, if your knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg is minimal - ahem - you’ll likely be struggling to keep the characters (and other details) straight.
But there’s also a larger storytelling paradox at work: a military battle must, by definition, involve lots of people; and yet, to establish an emotional connection to the story, the audience must have sustained, intimate access to a smaller group of characters. (This is how we follow Shakespeare’s history plays, which tend to focus less on a single battle and more on those vying for power.) Because so many leaders and soldiers played a key role – some for better, some for worse – in the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels shifts focus often, providing only cursory glimpses of most characters.
Yes, some conversations among the men are highly personal and touching; but the moments are fleeting, making the show feel more like a well-crafted, visually sumptuous 3D history lesson – with occasional musical interludes.
Indeed, the cast’s spare, haunting, men's chorus harmonies on songs like the show’s opener, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – marvelously led by Killer Angels’ Troubadour Ian Geers – were among my favorite moments of the show. Music director Kate Hopgood, who researched and arranged the show’s music, in addition to being the show's sound designer, affectingly gives the show some soulful scaffolding (and thus gives patrons a few goosebumps).
Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is simple and theatrical, so that despite the play’s many locales, the only constants are a wood platform at stage right that stands in for General Lee’s (Tobin Hissong) headquarters, and a draped sheet of white fabric for projections (designed by Christine Franzen) that hangs upstage left. To establish other settings, crates get moved and stacked, so soldiers may appear to be sitting in a tree, or taking cover behind the terrain’s natural features.
Costume designer Patty Branam expertly dresses the actors in historically accurate uniforms, using a pants-and-white-shirt base that allows for several quick costume changes; and the attention paid to details like the worn, weathered look of Lee’s hat, and the way the number of buttons on a uniform indicates one's military rank, really seals the deal. Betty Thomas designed the show’s era-appropriate props, and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting design looks gauzy and occasionally spooky under cover of fog, giving Killer Angels the feel of a lived ghost story.
David Blixt does fantastic work choreographing the show’s battles, but the most arresting moment comes at the show’s climax, when an elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown.
Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. And although the ensemble was strong generally, some standouts included Geers, who guides the audience through the complex story while slipping into multiple roles; Dwight Tolar as Union Col. Chamberlain, a thoughtful, dignified former schoolteacher-turned-soldier who has to make terrifying choices on the battlefield (like charging when his men run out of ammunition); Robert McLean as frustrated Confederate Lt. General Longstreet, who carries out Lee’s orders even when he knows the mission is doomed; and Hissong, who makes Lee a well-intentioned leader who’s so set on ending the war that his judgment about how to best achieve that is compromised.
Civil War buffs will likely swoon at The Killer Angels, as will fans of Shaara’s book (or the film adaptation, Gettysburg); and MSF’s overall execution is impressive and solid.