President and Assassin

M. Stefan Strozier's The Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln, presented by La Muse Venale Acting Troupe in an intimate studio space at Where Eagles Dare Theater, covers the last year in the life of the titular character. It opens with the president giving the celebrated Gettysburg Address, followed immediately by a scene with actor and soon-to-be assassin John Wilkes Booth performing a monologue from Julius Caesar. Once introduced, this juxtaposition of two views of Lincoln—revered leader versus tyrant—occurs throughout the play. Booth clearly believed that Lincoln was an unrelenting, power-hungry dictator; Lincoln honestly believed he was doing what was best for his nation. By the conclusion of the play, I was not sure which side I was supposed to feel sympathetic toward.

As Booth, Josh Stamell brought complexity to an otherwise vilified character. We see Booth with his mother, his family, and his fiancée. He loves them all but is tortured by indecision of Shakespearean proportions. In fact, his performance was so alive that Booth seemed to be the only character in color; everyone else appeared black and white. Whether intended by the script or not, it was easy to focus more on him than on any other character. Yet he doesn't fully get our sympathy; this Booth's obsession with Lincoln's supposed evils consumes him. But because he is the play's most three-dimensional character, we have little choice but to watch the action from his point of view.

Lincoln, by contrast, was taciturn, stiff, almost waxen. While this may reflect some of his actual personality traits (the real Lincoln could appear serious and reserved, despite his well-known sense of humor), it doesn't necessarily make for the most engaging theater. Occasionally he dropped his grave demeanor and, when in friendly conversation with Frederick Douglass or Ulysses S. Grant, told awkward stories about his youth that left him with an oddly manic glow. Was this hysteria showing the audience the stress that Lincoln was under? Or was it, in keeping with Booth's perspective, another indication that the president was not the stable hero we assume he is? Either interpretation would fit the play's initially introduced theme; instead, the ambiguity was unsettling.

Still, as Lincoln, Justin Ellis held his own against Stamell's Booth and gave a solid performance. His recitation of Lincoln's most famous speech was genuinely motivated. The two actors were an inspired casting choice: along with their ability to pull off two difficult characters, their physical resemblance to these historical figures was remarkable. It also helped that the costumes worn by all of the actors successfully conveyed the Civil War era without getting caught up in being precisely authentic.

Perhaps it was because the two lead actors were stronger performers than their cast mates, or because they were the only characters Strozier spent any time exploring, but the relative equality given to Booth and Lincoln made the play's perspective seem vague. I couldn't tell if Strozier has an opinion on these historical events or if he was just hoping to present the facts in a dramatic light. Unfortunately, without a well-formed point of view—whether in support of Lincoln or not—the play was never as interesting as it could have been. If Strozier does hold an opinion, he was less than successful in expressing it.

The production's real flaw was a lack of historical context for the audience. The show's program did not contain a cast list, and many of the characters portrayed (all, I believe, were actual people) were never explicitly introduced. Strozier clearly did a great deal of research for his script, and his attempt to share some of the more unsavory behaviors required of a nation at war—like the surveillance by Lincoln's secret police and ceasing prisoner exchanges—was intriguing but not well communicated. The play assumes a familiarity with Lincoln's presidency and assassination that goes much deeper than what many people were taught in school. This information is valid and welcome, but the audience needs to have an opportunity to learn it.

The show's program does mention, in a brief statement about Lincoln, that La Muse Venale wants to give "an honest performance and play." I must assume that this means The Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln wants to show a balanced view of history, without being overly glorifying or unfairly revisionist about the Civil War. A bit more communication about the playwright's intentions, whether in the script itself or in some takeaway materials for the audience, would clarify the company's purpose greatly and lead to a more consistent production with a more thoughtfully developed script.

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