The White House has a total of 132 rooms with 412 doors, 147 windows, and a cadre of servants to keep things running smoothly. Only one of these rooms, two of its doors, two windows, and one servant are needed for After Birth of a Nation to lampoon what might have happened inside the executive mansion on a cold winter’s night over 100 years ago.
Local playwright David Robson has provided City Theater Company a quasi-historical farce loaded with sight gags, cross-dressing, snappy dialog and larger-than-life characters. This World Premiere production keeps the action at a fast pace and will have you laughing out loud at the zany antics.
We are invited to The Green Room on February 18, 1915, where President Woodrow Wilson (Paul McElwee) has invited filmmaker D.W. Griffith (Jim Burns) to screen his new movie Birth of a Nation at the White House. Trusted adviser Colonel House (Dan Tucker) is trying to improve Wilson’s dovish, professorial image to the nation at a time when the Great War is raging in Europe and former President Teddy Roosevelt is the standard of manliness. Southerner Griffith and northerner House see power within their grasps and form a tentative alliance to use House’s policy ideas and Griffith’s film imagery to transform Wilson into a macho world leader – with them shaping his persona and reaping some rewards.
Meanwhile, First Daughter Margaret Wilson (Dylan Geringer) is a 29-year-old, tee-totaling spinster with dreams of becoming a famous singer; although her morality prohibits her from name-dropping to score coveted auditions.
All the characters are historical figures whose demeanors and true callings are humorously warped to create the premise of this show. Added to the mix are a lascivious southern preacher and his wife – Rev. Richard Gamble (George Tietze) and Cora Gamble (Kerry Kristine McElrone) – plus Russian Ambassador Eugeny Demidov (Jeff Hunsicker). Constantly filling champagne glasses is fictional black servant Clarence Fields (Chris Banker), who futilely acts as the gatekeeper of the room. Clarence also has a sinister agenda which plays out comically throughout the performance. These four characters are artistic constructs to help move the plot along and add more eccentricity to the story, which they do with aplomb.
The plot amusingly weaves from policy talk to social issues to religion to the arts and involves all but one of the characters – introducing the audience to who they are and what their intentions might be. The wacky first act sets up a screwball second where Demidov is inserted into the action to arrive at a satisfying conclusion.
According to Robson, “Margaret is the eye of the storm.” Margaret keeps things relatively sensible until she adds to the madness in the climactic scenes. To wit, Geringer’s exasperation repelling multiple suitors and interjecting herself into world politics are highlights of the show.
Another high point is McElrone as the minister’s wife, who longs to find a new religion – possibly one whose name and tenets she can properly pronounce – and satisfying physical love. Cora’s attempted seduction of Margaret built slowly to a quivering, hilarious climax that had me wishing she had an opportunity to make a second pass at the First Daughter.
Michael Gray directs the action to be quick, with characters entering and departing the stage at a frenetic pace. The set design and lighting by Vicki Neal and Richard A. Kendrick allow the actors to achieve a sense of space while being physically close to each other.
Robson harshly satirizes his subjects, but all of the actors are capable and provide ample character depth along with requisite humor. After Birth of a Nation is a funny look at what might have happened in 1915, but many of the jokes and comical references are topical. Robson has crafted his historical farce for today’s audiences, who should plan to see it.
After Birth of A Nation runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm through February 18. Tickets cost $15-28 and the show lasts a jaunty 90 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.
The Black Box at Opera Delaware Studios is located at 4 South Poplar Street in Wilmington. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks plus snacks are available for purchase inside the theater.
This post originally appeared on Delaware Arts INfo Blog.