On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
History has undeniably powerful draws – there’s the power of nostalgia, for one, and the longing for another era that seems like it was so much better; but there’s also history as undertow, with forces both good and bad from the past acting on us today and shaping our outlooks and our interactions with others. I could go on, but in Doris Baizley’s Shiloh Rules it is the tension between these two that propels the plot. Baizley, who is LA-based, wrote the play some years ago, but this is its NY premiere, with Michaela Goldhaber of Flying Fig Theater directing the all-female cast; the production is a little slow-paced at times, but the writing and acting are both sharp enough to make it funny and ultimately satisfying.
Like last week’s Not Clown, Shiloh Rules plays with the audience’s perception of time and “reality,” though it is rather more open about the game. At the start, you just see women in19th century dress, behaving completely as though it’s the Civil War era: on one side there’s Meg Barton and Clara May Abbot (Janine Kyanko and Kate Weiman), two Yankee nurses, and on the other there’s LucyGale Scruggs and Cecelia DeLaunay Pettison (Judi Lewis Ockler and Cordis Heard), weary Confederate refugees. But soon cracks in this façade (their own slips, plus the entrance of two other characters: Park Ranger Wilson and a profiteer who calls herself “Widow Beckwith”) reveal that this is actually a modern reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh. The women slip inadvertently in and out of their Civil War characters until the line is thoroughly blurred – plus there’s the whole issue of authenticity, whether something is more “real” if it was made in the 1800’s or meticulously recreated yesterday, and whether the script of history can be acted out again and be true to what the history books tell us happened. As you might expect, it gets to be nigh impossible to know where the “truth” lies in any of this, even – or perhaps especially – for characters that seem the most clearly rooted.
I have fond memories of going to “Renaissance fairs” with my parents as a kid, and seeing jousts and parades of dressed-up lords and ladies (and mostly lots of booths hawking handcrafts), but that was nothing compared to the heights aimed for by the Civil War buffs in Shiloh Rules, who are vying for the prize of Best Female Reenactor. Pettison and Clara May Abbot are longtime rivals; LucyGale and Meg are their young acolytes, whose modern stories (LucyGale is a FedEx shipment tracker; Meg is a nursing student) add a lot of depth to the plot as they are revealed. The play starts the night before the reenactment, with the women in the Shiloh national park after hours, illegally and ripe for discovery by the exasperated ranger (Samarra), a black woman who is naturally not terribly thrilled about the idea of reliving the Civil War, emancipation or not. Her attempts to boot them are in vain, but her presence, as well as the premature start and end to the reenactment, predictably complicate the quest to replicate history (which was already doomed, but still). Only Pettison remains unruffled, and the reason for this, which has shades of historical fantasy that reminded me of The Widow of the South (though that was written later), is one of the more creaking parts of the plot, though Cordis Heard does a good job giving Pettison a steely elegance. As the chaos mounts, it is the younger women who step forward with enthusiasm that seems to be heightened by the challenges; Ockler makes LucyGale Scruggs positively drunk on the experience, while Kyanko expertly shows Meg’s visceral shifts in mood and conviction so that you’re always guessing about the character.
As I said, the play can seem a little slow, despite the short timeframe and the faux war setting; perhaps it’s Baizley’s almost too-evenhanded approach in cycling characters in and out to get their say in each scene. It’s also, at times, a tad overwrought; it’s billed as a parody, but the way lessons seem to be learned, or supposed to be, makes it not always come off that way. Fortunately, as the sincere, likable huckster Widow Beckwith, Gwen Eyster’s strong performance injects a lot of levity and prevents the show from taking itself too seriously. You probably don’t need me to tell you not to go expecting the deeper questions raised by these kinds of reenactments to be resolved, but you can expect to be engaged and entertained by some fine acting and a refreshingly un-New York story that gets laughs even as it brings up knotty epistemological questions.
Gene Frankel Theatre // 24 Bond St. // Through Apr. 9, Thurs.-Sun. 7:30pm // Tickets at Smarttix
Photo by Kila Packett.