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Monday, 16 January 2012 22:49

Rat-a-tat-tat

Written by Bob Wilcox
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metrotheatercompany.org
metrotheatercompany.org

Metro Theater Company productions almost always have an exciting theatricality about them, like the current Battledrum, which is playing at the Missouri History Museum in concert with their Civil War exhibition. Battledrum opens with Union soldiers hurling firebrands at a Confederate homestead in Kentucky in 1863. Director Carol North gives us quick images of men racing about, leaping over a split-rail fence placed cunningly by set designer Nicholas Kryah, while John Armstrong's lights and Rusty Wandall's sound give us flames and explosions. It happens fast – just long enough to pull us into the story, short enough that we don't have time to ponder that we're watching lights flash and hearing loud sounds, not someone's home and barns being destroyed.

That theatricality, less spectacular, continues throughout the production as North moves her cast over the levels and barriers on Kryah's set, under battle-stained flags of North and South.

Discovered in the charred remains is an adolescent boy named Rufus, a fine, richly-fleshed-out performance by Patrick Mullen. Jackson, the drummer boy for the Union troops, finds him and turns him over to his superior, Corporal Wilkes. Wilkes makes Rufus the second-string drummer boy.

Because of the importance of drums in relaying commands to the troops in pre-radio days, drummer boys were often targeted in battle as a way of disrupting the enemy's communications. It was a good idea to have a substitute ready to take over.

Soon Jackson and Rufus are joined by a third potential drummer boy, George Washington, a young escaped slave. The three boys bicker and bond. Mark Holzum gives Jackson, as the senior of the three, an impetuous arrogance. Robert Moore's George Washington is, understandably, fearful and uncertain, but as the only one of the three who can read and write, he soon establishes a solid place in the corps.

Doug Cooney's script for Battledrum tries to cover a number of the effects of war when it might better have kept a tighter focus on the three boys. I'm not sure why he included a young woman who has been jarred loose from her mental moorings by war, but the role gives us a chance to hear Susan Elaine Rasch's lovely voice – the serviceable music, more 21st than 19th century, is by Lee Ahlin, with lyrics by playwright Cooney. Rasch also plays the ghost of Rufus's mother, come from the grave to warn and help him, and a battlefield nurse nicknamed General Cutter because of her frequent amputations, a character that's more an illustration of war's horrors than an integral part of the story. Kryah plays Corporal Wilkes and a mysterious character who wanders about the camp.

The night before the climactic battle, Jackson sings a song about the glory of ascending to St. Peter as a hero who's made the ultimate sacrifice. It's a chilling song, when you think about it. And the play concludes with the cast forming a drum line, smartly beating out complex and thrilling rhythms. As one of the characters says, "The drum makes the fear disappear."

I'm not convinced that's a good idea. But, as so often with Metro Theater Company, it is exciting theatre.

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