Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Peninsula Players’ ‘Butler’ outstanding

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Peninsula Players’ ‘Butler’ outstanding

Leading actor Greg Vinkler is phenomenal.

PHOTO: Sean Parris, from left, Sean Fortunato and Greg Vinkler are featured in Peninsula Players Theatre’s production of “Butler.” Peninsula Players Theatre photo

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – A toast! To Peninsula Players Theatre, the play “Butler” and Players artistic director Greg Vinkler. Here!

Not many theaters around can take on the word-driven play that wrestles with the incendiary intricacies of the Civil War and make it leap from the stage with such vigor, humor and quality.

***

Creative: Playwright – Richard Strand; director – Kristine Thatcher; scenic design – Jack Magaw; costume design – Karin Simonson Kopischke; lighting design – Jason Fassl; properties design – Jesse Gaffney; sound design – Christopher Kriz; production stage manager – William Collins; production manager – Sarah Burnham; scenic artist – Eileen Rozycki.

Cast: Major General Benjamin Butler – Greg Vinkler; Shepard Mallory – Sean Parris; Lieutenant Kelly – Sean Fortunato; Major Cary – Tim Monsion; Private Andrews – Andrew Purvis; Private Hartley – Peter Brian Kelly.

***

For Greg Vinkler, “Butler” not only keeps the Players’ flame of impassioned theater glowing but is a tour de force for him as an elite actor.

Greg Vinkler portrays the title role of Benjamin Franklin Butler, a major general in the Union army who is thrown headlong into a seeming dilemma at the start of the Civil War in May 1861. General Butler is fresh to commanding Fort Monroe at the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula, and a runaway slave who has walked into the fort with two companions demands to see him. General Butler flips over the word “demands.” The play opens with Butler reading his adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Sean Fortunato), up and down for the use of “demands” and such gaffes as not asking the slave what his name is. Clearly, in his picking vehemently over words, Butler is a man of the law – a lawyer. “Butler” is a legal drama infused with humor.

Playwrights take intense care with words. At least the good ones do. Add the care with words that the legal profession takes (often), and you have “Butler.” The play is the creation of Richard Strand, who was on hand for the Players’ rehearsals of his work and was in attendance on opening night Wednesday and able to soak in the standing ovation and cheers at the end – and see Greg Vinkler take a rare extra solo bow. The Players’ production, the Midwest premiere for “Butler,” ranks among its finest – as does Sean Grennan’s wonderful “The Tin Woman” that started the season.

Greg Vinkler is on every minute of “Butler,” which repeatedly finds the general matching wits with one of three other men, each played excellently by knowing, skilled actors guided by the careful hand of director Kristine Thatcher.

- The crucial man is Shepard Mallory (Sean Parris), the demanding slave. Shepard Mallory’s reception by all he meets is as oil is to water. Mr. Mallory, as the general ends up calling him, is sharp, clever and daring. Mr. Mallory has come to the fort for asylum and for the general the massage the law to get him out of his predicament. By law, General Butler insists, the runaway slave must be returned his owner – certain death for this tart-tongued slave. Stroke by stroke, Shepard Mallory’s actions and words paint General Butler into a corner that Shepard Mallory insists the legal eagle can find a way out of.

- Lieutenant Kelly is a dutiful aide. He is West Point trained and experienced in combat, neither of which is in General Butler’s resume. Lieutenant Kelly starts out abiding by General Butler and hating Shepard Mallory. He evolves, with puffs of comedy poofing from him and around him along the way.

- The third essential man is Confederate Major Cary (Tim Monsion), who has come with the demand (that dynamite word again for General Butler), that Shepard Mallory be returned to his owner, Major Cary’s superior officer, Colonel Mallory. Through Shepard Mallory, General Butler knows that Major Cary is also interested in spying, so the major is blindfolded. The meeting in the general’s office is ripe with North/South genteel/vitriolic wordplay. The climax is a fabulous toast.

Everything in “Butler” takes place in the general’s brick-walled office. That’s as static as a setting can get, and yet the play pretty much sails along on the words of Richard Strand and the propulsion of his characters. It helps that the actors are primo. Greg Vinkler unleashes his arsenal of nuances and theatrical flint. Sean Fortunato is the physical ramrod with a tongue-in-cheek alter ego (and he refined this role while performing in the previous, wild “The Mystery of Irma Vep”). Sean Parris is the measure of the formidable task of performing a role of extreme complexities of deep anger, unimaginable hurt and undeniable hope. Tim Monsion is the worthy and wily nemesis, just as infused with passions in beliefs for a cause as is General Butler – and thus the subsequent savage bloodletting on a vast scale. Tim Monsion also is a prime reason “Butler” came to the Players in the first place by calling attention to Richard Strand’s magnificent script.

Butler” is beyond the pale of most theaters. Its subject matter is imposing. The role of General Butler is not for mere mortals. The play is special. The Players’ production is special (5 stars out of 5) for the dynamism of its performances.

RELATED EVENT: Pre-show talk 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27, with Sturgeon Bay native Joe Knaapen, a Civil War re-enactor. Knaapen will discuss how the Civil War shaped the career of Edward S. Minor, the only Door County man elected to Congress (1894-1907).

REST OF SEASON: “Always… Patsy Cline” by Ted Swindley, Sept. 3-Oct. 19.

THE VENUE: The location is about atmosphere – tall cedars and pines and shoreline vistas. The modern 621-seat Peninsula Players Theatre features Door County limestone in its interior décor. When the weather is friendly, the wood slats of the side walls are rolled open to the outside. For cool fall nights, the theater floor is equipped with radiant heating for comfort. While the company dates back 79 years, the theater building is of 2006 vintage. The playhouse and theater were built on the site of the previous structure. The location on the shores of Green Bay provides playgoers with pre-show picnicking and viewing the sunset. Here’s a theatrical rarity: The Players’ website provides sunset times.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air segments on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays. This Sunday, “Butler” will be the topic.

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