By Erin Fleming
EDITOR’S NOTE: PRODUCTION EXTENDED NOV 9-11
In commemoration of the upcoming presidential election, EDGE Theatre presents 1776, the story of the Declaration of Independence, with an impressive production that takes some appropriately big artistic risks in order to celebrate of one of the most significant moments in American history.
It is the summer of 1776, and delegates from the thirteen British colonies meet in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia to deliberate about whether or not to declare independence from Great Britain. The show focuses on the efforts of John Adams (Massachusetts) Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania) and Thomas Jefferson (Virginia) to persuade the other members of the Second Continental Congress to throw off the shackles of the British monarchy by signing a unifying declaration.
This sparsely mounted production, intimately lit by David Trudeau, is nestled nicely in Mary’s Attic, the versatile second floor lounge of Andersonville’s beloved Hamburger Mary’s. The cast sits and drinks alongside the audience, interacting with them occasionally, including them as witnesses to history as it happens. A fantastic trio of musicians, under the direction of Linnea Carrera, unobtrusively accompany the proceedings from a corner.
As they Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve, the Founding Fathers reveal themselves to be less like the stoic, iconic statesmen of legend and more like the players who attend our contemporary party conventions. They squabble, pontificate and insult one another. They eschew their duties to indulge in rum, a nap or sex. They complain about the heat, their commute and their constituents.
They are, in a word, human. And, as Franklin contends, definitively American. Through portraying history’s heroes as flawed, three-dimensional people, creators Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone encouraged their 1969 audiences to see the similarities between now and then, between “us” and “them.”
Director Melissa Crabtree grabs onto that idea and runs with it, costuming the cast in contemporary business attire rather than in powdered wigs and ruffles, and sprinkling in a few choice anachronistic details, such as one of the delegates eating a burger and fries, and having bored, nerdy Thomas Jefferson (a comically bewildered Jack Wright) pass the time by reading a Harry Potter book.
Jonathan Crabtree (sharing the role with Terry McEnroe) absolutely commands the evening as the “obnoxious and dislikable” John Adams, tough with his adversaries and tender with his wife. Their long-distance, epistolary dialogue portrayed as imagined conversations, beauifully sung by J. Crabtree and Melissa Paris. Edward Kuffert and Coco Kasperowicz are hilarious as the wisecracking “internationalist” Benjamin Franklin and the rum-soaked straightshooter Stephen Hopkins. Alexandra T. Cross tackles the disturbingly provocative Edward Rutledge and the equally demanding “Molases to Rum to Slaves” with fierce commitment. Laura Jewell, Rick Olson and Caden Marshall deliver a stunning rendition of the Courier’s lament, “Mama Look Sharp.”
Most impressively, M. Crabtree has assembled a non-traditional, gender-blind cast that delivers outstanding performances perfectly in line with EDGE Theatre’s mission to develop theatre for marginalized communities and to foster the tools of social change. For this musical about famous, dead, white men, she has created an ensemble wherein non-white, female and differently-abled audience members will all be able to see themselves represented. And that, more than anything else affirms one of the show’s predominant themes, that our history as Americans belongs to all of us.
EDGE Theatre presents “1776” through September 17, and again November 9-11, at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N Clark Ave., Chicago. More information, exact show times and tickets are available here.