In bringing theatrical life to a niche and slightly oddball hobby, one challenge is not becoming as obsessive as your subjects. It’s a challenge playwright Talene Monahon playfully references early in How To Load A Musket, her new verbatim work staged by Less Than Rent at 59E59.
George Tayler, a subject who reenacts George Washington, is describing authentic foods and fabrics he creates for Revolutionary War events when he confesses: “I could spend hours and hours telling you about chocolate!” He is then swiftly cut off as the play moves on, turning its eyes to another corner of the strange, oft-fascinating world of historical reenactments (both the Revolutionary and Civil War varieties). Monahon’s research is plentiful, and there is a ton of fascinating detail here. But, thank god, we are not getting lost in the weeds.
To help in this, Monahon splits the play into two sections. The first half takes an overview of the reenactors’ world and all its varied denizens, based on interviews conducted pre-2016. We meet the aforementioned George as he fine-tunes his depiction of Washington, Brian, just 17 but already Civil War obsessed, Javier, who seeks to represent Hispanic soldiers in the revolution, and Lucien, who proudly – if a little resignedly – mostly takes on the stories of black officers.
Musket’s first section is fun, fast and often hilarious. The ensemble shifts between characters seamlessly under Jaki Bradley’s tight direction, as Monahon builds our understanding of this world’s rules and customs. Though basic descriptions of the reenactments do elicit laughter, Monahon avoids making fun. If reenacting is silly, she suggests, it’s no sillier than what we’re doing right now – gathering in a room to play dress up.
Monahon also lightly sows the seeds for the play’s political shift. The turn comes with Trump’s election in 2016, and then Charlottesville the following year. Among the Civil War reenactors we’ve come to know and like, some struggle to accept that its fight continues to rage today, while others are all too keen to extend their pretend, and draw very real battle lines.
The connections Monahon draws from the reenactments to Trump, Charlottesville, and white supremacy rarely feel strained. Not that her subjects are politically homogeneous. Most express horror at the country’s dark turn; just one angrily insists that the Civil War was fought over “state’s rights,” while proudly displaying a Confederate flag. But all must contend with a new reality where there is no disentangling their hobby from our current moment. Can dressing up as a Confederate soldier be a neutral act? If the goal is remembering history, is the right history being honored?
For the most part, Monahon’s subjects have given her everything she needs to make this turn feel natural. Her interviews are rich, fascinating and human. We don’t hear Monahon’s questions, but the tonal shift also smartly suggest her increasingly complicated feelings about the project, and growing ambivalence towards her subjects. That we feel this simply in her structural choices is testament to Monahon’s care as a writer.
Unfortunately, the play concludes with an unnecessary coda where Monahon appears as a character and explains that ambivalence. The resulting scene is fine, but only spells out a point which was already evident. Monahon did not need to explain it literally – she had already done the work.
Still, Monahon herself is given specific life by Carolyn Braver, who excels along with the play’s whole ensemble. It feels rude to single out any one, since they function so wonderfully as a moving whole. However, there is Richard Topol. An always captivating presence, Topol here travels seamlessly from a kind, gentle America to its dark and ugly corners. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Topol sticks the landing, as does this play.