By Ron Fassler
This new 90-minute play by Talene Monahon is not a how-to for those interested in learning the retro skill of loading a musket. But it does (as you might surmise) concern itself with those men and women who are into historical reenactment, be it the Revolutionary War (where a musket comes in) or the Civil War (which was more about rifles). Either way, the thousands of people across the United States who give their considerable time and effort to the unending research that is essential to reenactment is a group that is mostly derided for being somewhat strange (and a tad obsessed). I confess that I knew nothing about the subject when I arrived at the 59E59 Theaters for a Sunday afternoon preview. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be straight-up drama, a subtle comedy, or flat-out satire. What I got was a docudrama that deals with the eccentric culture of these reenactors and a chance to delve into the personalities of a disparate group of individuals played by a charming six-member cast (a seventh is the author herself). It’s about passion, finding a foothold in an often confusing world, camaraderie, mercy, and grace. It’s about life.
What Monahon has done is interview a cross-section of reenactors and used their exact words (including hems and haws) that— along with the aid of her director, Jaki Bradley— create a factual and genuine world that effortlessly invites the audience in. The whole approach is charming, with affection for the two dozen (or so) characters portrayed. And they are an odd bunch, so the temptation for condescension is redolent yet consistently avoided (to Monahon’s credit). As described in the play’s show notes, the playwright is “a self-described history buff who studied at Dartmouth, and began infiltrating the reenactment community in 2015, spending time with Revolutionary War units in Massachusetts and New York before making her way down South to speak to the reenactors of the Civil War.” And those discoveries continued over the following three years, which have included Donald Trump’s election as President, the taking down of Confederate statues throughout the south, and perhaps most significantly, the atrocity of what occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 at the Unite the Right rally.
The cast are all first-rate, so mention should be made of them all: Adam Chanler-Berat, David J. Cork, Ryan Spahn, Andy Taylor, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol and Nicole Villamil. And at the matinee performance I attended Carolyn Braver could not perform due to a medical emergency. In her stead was the playwright herself… playing the role of the playwright in the final scene. She came on with a few pages that she summarily glanced at (I guess she wanted to be sure to get it absolutely right in fairness to her fellow cast members, director, and audience), and acquitted herself well. I took note of her bio in the program that mentioned she is an actor with some impressive credits, so her doing a fine job wasn’t that much of a surprise (or a stretch).
The production values for the small space in Theater C of the 59E59 complex are quite good. Sound, costume, lighting, and the suggested set all work perfectly. I’m a little surprised that the play has resonated so much with me. But as history in our frighteningly young country is still a work in progress, casting light on how our progress is perceived— especially by those who are devoted to keeping its history alive— is important and relevant. Talene Monahon has done a most impressive job with How to Load a Musket. She is definitely someone who I will be keeping an eye out for what she develops next.
Photos: Russ Rowland
Directed by Jaki Bradley
Playing at the 59E59 Theaters
Through Sunday, January 26