March 2, 2013

Children’s Theatre shows 'Courage' with new musical

Updating of Stephen Crane’s novel with hip-hop music works surprisingly well.

I was perfectly comfortable, until gunfire erupted behind me.

I’d been able to enjoy Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s “Red Badge of Courage” in a conventional way: appreciating the clever lighting and multi-tiered set, admiring the fluid rapping of Mason “Quill” Parker in one of the main roles, enjoying the way Eric Schmeidl condensed Stephen Crane’s novel into a one-act play.

Suddenly, as cannons boomed and rifles pinged from all points of Wells Fargo Theater, the illusion was complete. I was on a Virginia battlefield in 1863, all but smelling the gunpowder as Ohio soldiers fired back at invisible Rebels.

This production, designed by Jeffrey Kmiec and directed by Sidney Horton, is an immersive experience. By rights, it shouldn’t be, because it combines a 150-year-old story with music that might be heard from any car cruising uptown Charlotte during the CIAA.

A silent character dubbed Beats stands on a platform above the stage, producing sound effects and scratching on a turntable. While soldiers reproduce Civil War vernacular, Quill mostly raps in rhymed couplets.

The visible world in the show is made up of white people: Henry (Chaz Pofahl), his stalwart friend Jim (Berry Newkirk) and gabby Wilson (Mark Sutton, who plays two other roles with different accents and makeup.)

The unseen world consists of Voice, Henry’s sometimes supportive and sometimes accusative conscience (Quill), and Beats. Both men are black.

Yet this blending of times and attitudes appears natural from the start, partly because the lyrics by Reemycks provide such sharp commentary. We live in a polyglot culture, so what could have seemed odd never did. (A caution: Saturday’s audience contained many kids under 10. It probably won’t offend or disturb them, but it may be lost on them.)

Henry’s moral dilemma in the novel is reduced to a simpler series of events: He contemplates battle, runs from the heat of it, faces down his fear after a harsh interrogation by Voice, fights bravely – perhaps even madly – and looks back briefly to see what happened.

The atmosphere counts as much as the words, and Horton creates the successful illusion of battle with a small turntable, those noise effects all around us and motion flowing in and around each nook of the stage. (The director also had to stand in as Beats on Saturday; DJ Flamengo, the experienced scratcher who normally takes that role, had stepped out for a long-booked CIAA gig.)

In Crane’s novel, war is usually somewhere else: Hardly any of it depicts brutal, close-up fighting. In Schmeidl’s adaptation, the fight itself is even more removed: The only onstage death is the killing of a grasshopper, as pointless and arbitrary an act as wars inspire.

The most poignant moment comes when Henry and an old veteran (Sutton again) lay dying comrades down in a field. They slowly, tenderly spread uniforms around the stage, while Voice reads the names, ages and wounds of the fallen.

The illusion is simple but subtle: Individuals, most under 21, fill these uniforms but soon won’t need them any more. This play targets viewers of the same age, who by that time must have been imagining what it would be like to wear a blood-stained shirt some day.

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