What can a small theater do to tell a tale better than big budget movies or novels?
Lifeline’s “The Killer Angels” gives a good answer to that question, showing how fine acting up close and creativity with a modicum of props can make a story come alive in ways that movies, TV or even big theaters cannot.
“The Killer Angels” tells the tale of the decisive Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. It is a treasure both for history buffs and those learning of these events for the first time.
According to the program notes the author, Michael Shaara, had his novel rejected by publishers 15 times, with its eventual publication floundering as a commercial flop. Amazingly, it then won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year and later became a Hollywood movie, Gettysburg.
In the small Lifeline space ten men doing quick changes from gray to blue create 22+ roles and alternately speak to the events from multiple points of view – North and South, Generals, colonels, lieutenants and even deserters. We meet a General Lee (Don Bender) who never had slaves, was devoted to his beloved Virginia, and makes decisions readily that he knows will mean great numbers of dead among his troops. We see the frustration of his subordinates who think more strategically, particularly Longstreet (Tom Hickey).
We develop a deep bond with a gentleman soldier from the North who in pre-war was a professor and who has a deep-seated loathing of slavery, Chamberlain (Michael McKeough).
We learn of West Point grads on both sides of the battle who had previously fought side by side and learn of how this created for inner turmoil through the words of Armistead (Niall McGinty). A troubadour (Matt Fletcher) helps us quickly re-orient our point of view from North to South and back again through songs of the time.
This is small budget theater with lots of creative ways to insist that the audience use its imagination to see the story and that insistence is how this small theater trumps the blockbuster movies and high production value large theaters.
Trunks are moved about to sometimes be the bunk of troops at rest and at other times be the site of battle. A scaffolding serves as a tree and then a wall for war maps. Ten men marching in two rows leave piles of uniform jackets signaling their deaths in battle. We know men are shot because of how the actors move, and not because gallons of stage blood fill the set. In short, it’s imaginative and up close and personal—small theater at its best.
You will learn about war strategy and think again about “good wars”. To know that in some quarters this war is called the Civil War while in others it persists as being known as “The War of Northern Aggression” speaks to its enduring importance to our current day. It would be nice to see young adults in the audience or better yet for classrooms to fill the seats.
A big thank you to Lifeline Theater for bringing this important history to life.
“The Killer Angels” run is through October 27.
6912 North Glenwood Avenue
(free parking and shuttle, and located conveniently across the street from the Red Line Morse Street stop)
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 4 p.m.
For tickets call 773 761 4477 or visit the Lifeline Theater website
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Photos: Suzanne Plunkett