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Sierra Madre Playhouse offers all-encompassing experience
Be there! Even before the drumbeat starts, pulsing louder and louder, you’ll want to be in your seat for “Battledrum.” The earlier-than-usual curtain for the Civil War drama is at 7 p.m. But even before that, you’ll be treated to fascinating glimpses of the era, hosted by any of several history buffs.
Then the drum-rolls start, and the musical one-act “Battledrum” brings us an unlikely trio of drummer boys. Who are these young menA!X Rufus-a Kentucky war orphan after his home is burned to the ground. Jackson-bound into service by his parents. George Washington-a slave who lost his way on the Underground Railroad.
Drummers played a dangerous role during the Civil War. In camp life, they signaled daily routines-reveille, mess call, taps. Over the din of battle, their drumbeats signaled orders. And the drummers were exposed, vulnerable, as the enemy could disrupt communications by picking them off. Rufus, Jackson and George are well aware of their danger, singing “!Kon the glorious day when I die.” Their bravado, perhaps, helps them ward off fear.
But they have fun, too, joshing each other and indulging in comic rough-and-tumble antics. Lots of laughs lighten the mood. As their brotherhood bonds, empathetic moments emerge.
“Battledrum” lets us glimpse the contrasts between the horrors of war and the courage, valor, and patriotism of those caught in the middle of it. An old soldier mournfully lends his perspective bought from tough experiences. A long-pampered southern belle wafts onstage, encountering Jackson, and breathing a haunting tune. She struggles with the realities wherein her plantation-and possibly she herself-suffered the ravages of war. Is she realA!X Is she a ghostA!X Jackson and Rufus wonder!K .
Before and after the 90-minute show (there is no intermission) you will want to spend time in the foyer where walls display reproductions of Civil War photos, writings, soldiers’ letters home, and other artifacts and memorabilia.
For “Battledrum” is not just a play about three drummer boys. It is a sensory experience and an education melded together. Indeed, the Sierra Madre Playhouse has teamed with the Sierra Madre Community Foundation to bring busloads of students to weekday productions. This educational outreach will offer tastes of a little-known chapter in history and a taste of live theater to young people.
The dynamic setting is framed as if in a photograph. Massive ramps serve as battlefield hills set near a forest. A tree becomes a spot where Rufus, lacking a battledrum of his own, can practice his drumming. A giant banner overhead displays opponents’ flags. The stark scene was designed by John Vertrees. Anna Cecelia Martin’s back-wall lighting effects underline the drama’s changing moods, as does Tony “Sparx” Palermo’s sound design.
Co-producers Christian Lebano and Estelle Campbell, both SMPlayhouse veterans, bring us the West Coast premiere of “Battledrum.” As director, Lebano is fulfilling his longtime dream to produce the play, with its book and lyrics by Doug Cooney, and music by Lee Ahlin. Campbell is managing director, and Heidi Hostetler is production stage manager, assisted by Kelsey O’Keeffe.
Ameenah Kaplan has the key role of coaching the SMP drummers on their Civil War-era replica drums. Kaplan trains drummers for the popular Blue Men Group.
Soldiers’ uniforms, the youths’ rough clothing, and Annabelle’s rustling, tattered gown are by Elizabeth Nankin, costume designer.
“Battledrum” is double-cast. Not to worry whether the “Vicksburg” or “Gettysburg” cast is playing when you attend. Both are superb, with fine portrayals of their roles by all actors. Chris Clowers and James Simenc play Rufus; David Crane, Patrick Dillon Curry, and Mark Holzum take turns as Jackson; and Donzell Lewis and Damone Williams play George. Will Cespedes is both Captain Wilkes and the old soldier. Tara Bopp and D.J. Harner each act dual roles of the mother and of the female General Cutter. Kaitlin Cornuelle and Alexandra Wright play the contrasting roles of Annabelle (the ephemeral, troubled belle) and one of the soldiers. Rounding out the cast are Joseph Ahern and Mark Ostrander as Jenkins.
curtain time Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. for Sunday matinees-but remember to come early to enjoy the historical prologues. The public may also attend at 10 a.m. on March 14 and April 11 when fifth graders will be present. This opportunity might offer theater-goers a different perspective. Admission is $25 general, $22 for seniors (65+) and students (13-21), and $12 for children 12 and under.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Local restaurants and free parking are nearby. Reservations are recommended because of variations in dates and hours of performances. For more information, phone (626) 355-4318, or visit the website, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org, for online ticketing. For reservations for groups of 15 or more, phone (626) 836-2125.
By Fran Syverson