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Theater reviews: Shiloh Rules and Unfinished Women Cry

Plays offer twists on history

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American philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." To which legions of Civil War reenactors presumably respond, "Glory, glory, hallelujah!" What might be a grim punishment for some progressive folk is sheer bliss for enthusiasts who flock to ancient battlefields, don vintage Civil War uniforms, rough it in the absence of modern conveniences, respond to spirited military orders, kill Yanks and Rebs with blank bullets or bayonets and die with the utmost verisimilitude.

In this strange recreationist mode, Doris Baizley's 2006 comedy, Shiloh Rules, takes us back to one of the Civil War's bloodiest battlegrounds via a uniquely offbeat path. All four of the re-enactors, two Yanks and two Rebs, are women. So is the Mother Courage profiteer who sells assorted implements and artifacts on both sides of the battle lines, some items distressed with pee to look more weathered. Even the ranger at Shiloh National Park is a woman — and African American to boot.

The presentation by Donna Scott Productions is something of a historical reenactment itself, the first theater event staged at the Charlotte Art League since 2009, when Actor's Lab brought us AmerWrecka. Six years later, the neighborhood has more hop to it, close by the fork where Camden Road meets South Tryon near Bland Street Station, extra tasty last Friday when my wife Sue and I experienced Food Truck Night down the block.

Theatergoers who don't peruse their playbills might be lulled into thinking that we're back in 1862 on the eve of The Battle of Shiloh as the action begins. That's because all the re-enactors are already in costume and in character on the night before the cannons are touched off to begin the massive charade. Clara May Abbott for the Union and Cecilia DeLauney Pettison are the longtime veteran re-enactors, true believers in their sacred calling, Abbott because she relishes the history and Pettison because she's a diehard daughter of the South — and perhaps because she's a mite teched. Could she be a ghost haunting the hallowed grounds? Nah.

Each of these vets has a rookie along with her, less imbued with the spirit. Abbott has Meg Barton, who seems to be motivated solely by college credit. Living nearby, LucyGale Scruggs is the least gung-ho, bored with her day job, and the eccentric Pettison makes it clear that she isn't very welcome. Their first military action occurs in the present day after dark, as Ranger Wilson comes along on patrol, driving them into retreat because they're not supposed to even be in the park until 8 a.m. the following morning.

Less inclined to cower or retreat is the mercenary Widow Beckwith. Wheeling a thoroughly modern and mundane shopping cart, with a dour and deadpan attitude that isn't going to change until money falls into her hands, Beckwith strips whatever romance and adventure might have been left in the air with her comically world-weary indifference.

It's this plum role that Scott plucks for herself, looking over the field as if she owns it, cracking wise and hawking her wares. Even the Widow is bedeviled by Ranger Wilson, as Darlene Parker feasts on the woman in uniform, writing up citations at a merry clip for various violations until the whole re-enactment scenario is upended. Two military campaigns are going on at the same time after the park rangers lose control of the park.

Director Tonya Bludsworth seemed to want a quicker pace than she was getting, especially at the start, but I'm confident both the Union and Confederate tandems will shape up as Shiloh hits its second week. Polly Adkins as the Confederate Pettison and Celeste Marcone as Abbott have all the starchy earnestness you could want as the elders, so it's fortunate that plenty comes along to stress them out. Otherwise, they wouldn't be terribly interesting or textured.

Glynnis O'Donoghue as Meg does a fine job getting under Abbott's skin, slacking off in the prepping stages and turning skittish when the cannons fire. But Baizley designs her script so that both the newbies mature in the heat of combat. Stephanie Gardner undertakes the most audacious risk as LucyGale, and she's rewarded with the most fearsome ordeal.

You can wander around the funky Art League galleries before and after the performances, and there were brie and guacamole sightings behind the seating area at intermission, along with the customary crackers. No, the theater magic isn't so complete that you forget you're at a temporarily converted gallery when the comedy begins, but Eric Winkenwerder's leafy lighting and Gina Stewart's sound design assist your imagination quite sufficiently on your way to Shiloh — where "resurrect" will likely acquire a whole new meaning.

If you saw Aishah Rahman's The Mojo and the Sayso at Duke Energy Theatre in 2010, you already know that the playwright doesn't gravitate toward wholesome, sensible characters. Now in another On Q Performing Arts production, Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, we find that Rahman isn't always kindly disposed toward action or plot, either.

The title pretty much says it all once you understand it. We are at two locations on March 12, 1955: the Hide-a-Wee Home for Unwed Mothers and the boudoir of Pasha, a rich patroness of Charlie Yardbird Parker, on the day that the iconic jazz saxophonist dies. At the lower level of Michael Jones's bordello-like set is the Hide-a-Wee, with five unwed mothers under the care of Nurse Jacobs.

Only Consuelo's newborn baby actually cries, impersonated by the offstage sound of Harvey Cummings II's alto sax, but the women do whine and complain a lot, intermittently getting along with one another. Up in a small loft-like perch, Parker sits with Pasha, spurning her offers of love and medical aid, calling out for drugs, bemoaning his lack of success, rhapsodizing about the music he has lived for, and occasionally standing up to leave or head off to a gig — at which time he invariably doubles over in excruciating pain.

"Time stands still," explains Charlie Chan, the black man in blackface who connects the two places as our emcee. Or it goes round in circles. According to Rahman's script, Chan is Charlie's alter ego, but director April C. Turner and costume designer Davita Galloway ignore the playwright's directive to dress Chan as a raggedy replica of Charlie. So you would need to be steeped in bebop lore to get the connection.

(When one of Bird's most famous albums came out, a quintet recording of the Toronto concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Parker's contractual obligations to another record company forced the rogue release to list Bird on the cover as "Charlie Chan." Bird's common law wife was Chan Parker — and one of the concert tunes was "Wee.")

Nicholas Johnson is extraordinary playing all the changes on Parker's last hours, and Leah Palmer-Licht makes nearly as much of the similarly circumscribed role of Pasha. Among the women at the lower depths, I was most taken by LeShea Stukes as the smart-ass Wilma and the Caribbean tinge that Kenya Templeton bestowed on Nurse Jacobs — plus a wondrous vocal. Tim Bradley as Chan provided a huge chunk of the light peeping through all the desperation.

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