The Killer Angels« Go Back To Stage

  • By
  • Michael Shaara

  • Adapted for the stage by

  • Karen Tarjan

  • Produced by

  • Lifeline Theatre

  • Directed by

  • Matt Miller

  • Cast

  • Chris Hainsworth, Joe Flynn, Steve O’Connell, Niall McGinty, Tom Hickey , Don Bender, Michael McKeogh, Zack Livinsgston , Matt Fletcher, & Sean Sinitski
  • JEFF AWARD WINNER: Best Sound Design
  • JEFF NOMINATION: Best Ensemble

...on all counts this production is a stunner.
Highly Recommended
-Chicago Sun Times

...powerfully staged by Matt Miller…as cinematic as theater can get in three dimensions.
Highly Recommended
-Stage & Cinema

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  • By
  • Michael Shaara

  • Adapted for the stage by

  • Karen Tarjan

  • Produced by

  • Lifeline Theatre

  • Directed by

  • Matt Miller

  • Cast

  • Chris Hainsworth, Joe Flynn, Steve O’Connell, Niall McGinty, Tom Hickey , Don Bender, Michael McKeogh, Zack Livinsgston , Matt Fletcher, & Sean Sinitski
  • JEFF AWARD WINNER: Best Sound Design
  • JEFF NOMINATION: Best Ensemble

...on all counts this production is a stunner.
Highly Recommended
-Chicago Sun Times

...powerfully staged by Matt Miller…as cinematic as theater can get in three dimensions.
Highly Recommended
-Stage & Cinema

Reviews

Highly Recommended

from Chicago Sun Times

by Hedy Weiss

Listen carefully to the Troubadour who opens Lifeline Theatre’s hugely engrossing production, “The Killer Angels.”

Strumming a guitar, he sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that quasi-Biblical song that became a Union anthem during the American Civil War, and contained this line: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” There is something decidedly less than triumphal about the balladeer’s rendition. Determined, weary, rueful, anguished, broken? Absolutely. Victorious? Hardly. You sense the brokenness, both physical and spiritual, that comes most particularly with a civil war.

Karen Tarjan’s superb stage adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg was first staged by Lifeline in 2004. It has been remounted this season to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflagration — the battle that, over the course of its four days (June 30 to July 3, 1863), not only resulted in the largest number of casualties of the war, but also is widely seen as its turning point. And on all counts this production is a stunner.

The classic adage about war is that is comprised of “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” There is nothing at all boring about “The Killer Angels,” but it swings convincingly between those two extremes. And it has been ingeniously directed by Matt Miller and designed by Alan Donahue, so that a collection of rudimentary set pieces and props (scaffolding, a few wooden platforms, steamer trunks, some blankets and rifles) can be assembled and reassembled to suggest a slew of locations and battlefield perspectives.

Leading the Confederate forces is the aging Gen. Robert E. Lee (Don Bender, in a wonderfully measured portrayal of a complex man), who in many ways seems to have lost his tactical touch but not his stubbornness. Lee makes several crucially wrong decisions despite the advice of his colleague, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Hickey, excellent as the man who respects Lee yet sees the error of his decisions).

On the Union side there is Col. Chamberlain (a winningly poetic Michael McKeough), the handsome, sensitive intellectual from Maine ordered to hold the Union line at any cost. He does so, heroically, suffering many casualties in the process, including a serious wound to his leg. (Chamberlain’s conversations with his younger brother — played by the appealing Zach Livingston — supply lovely interludes.)

Although there are only 10 actors on the Lifeline stage they magically manage to conjure thousands, with Steve O’Connell as a very funny, gung-ho Major Gen. Pickett and Sean Sinitski as Ewell, on the Confederate flank; Chris Hainsford as a Union general; Niall McGinty most memorable playing officers on both sides; Joe Flynn as an expertly shrewd spy; and throughout it all (with excellent music direction by Mike Przygoda), Matt Fletcher as the wonderful Troubadour who suggests the determination, fear and tragic undertow of this nation-altering war.

Killer Theater

from Stage & Cinema

by Larry Bommer

Recreating in part the pivotal Civil War battle fought 150 years ago this July, Lifeline Theatre’s labor of hate, powerfully staged by Matt Miller, is as cinematic as theater can get in three dimensions. Commissioned for the company, Karen Tarjan’s 2004 adaptation of Michael Shaara’s much-praised novel (made into the 1993 film Gettysburg) dynamically delivers three days of all-consuming combat—lost opportunities, failed strategies, brilliant tactics, reversals and upheavals. Above all, we hear, feel, see and endure the too-human factors of fear and fury as flesh and blood meet cannonballs, bayonets, and bullets en masse.

The Killer Angels works well and hard to humanize the carnage that sprawled over a Pennsylvania countryside in high summer as General Meade’s Union troops accidentally blundered into Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Rebel horde. (When a bunch of Confederates seeking shoes in the town of Gettysburg met their enemy, an accident became a holocaust from July 1-3, 1863.) Seldom has the eloquence of energy been so palpable: This swirling Lifeline stage pulsates and detonates with its revolving scaffolding, portmanteaux that double as barricades, and busy wardrobe of rapidly changed costumes in blue and gray.

As the Troubadour, Matt Fletcher delivers period classics from both sides (such as the always glorious “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and ‘”Just Before the Battle, Mother”) that expose the emotions that warfare tries to conceal. The other noises—sound designer Stephen Ptacek’s ferocious and deafening cannon fire and whizzing grape shot—leave next to nothing to the imagination.

Along the bloody way we meet two handsome and valiant survivors, fighting brothers from Maine (Michael McKeough and Zach Livingston, the former playing a gentle Bowdoin professor) who anchor their valor in a strong conviction against the evils of slavery and the expendability of those who defend it. Representing the disloyal opposition, Joe Flynn plays a very British Coldstream officer who, observing the mayhem, praises the South for its old-school adherence to land and tradition when the North represents too much unprocessed change. (This in part explains how they lost their Empire.) The 10-member ensemble makes an unforgettable band of brothers.

So much at Gettysburg was a question of luck and location. Besides the “homefield advantage” of fighting on your own turf, the Union secured the advantage of commanding heights like Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. Lee’s smaller forces were rapidly depleted in gallant but doomed attempts (like Pickett’s Charge, here strangely without the famous rebel yell) to dislodge the “blueberries” and their deadly artillery.

Mistakes were measured in blood: Sickle’s insubordinate withdrawal of his men from the Union center, Ewell’s failure to capture the advantage of high ground, the abject failure of J.E.B. Stuart to monitor Meade’s movements and warn Lee about the encroaching Yankees.

But, like the brothers who die for different sides, it’s the profiles in courage amid the “fog of battle” that lift these two hours into a kind of theatrical glory. Don Bender’s Lee incarnates weathered wisdom, implacable will and, ultimately, toxic remorse over the loss of a war as much as this panic in Pennsylvania. Among many memorable hit-and-run depictions are Tom Hickey’s cautious Longstreet (sadly vindicated by the secessionists’ defeat), Steve O’Connell’s over-eager George Pickett and noble Reynolds, and Flynn as an actor turned spy who provides the graycoats with priceless reconnaissance. Then there are the coordinated attacks, with the soldiers’ deaths indicated, not by blood bags exploding in their costumes, but by the simple removal of their uniforms as they return to the rolling rack to assume new ones.

You are there and suddenly Shakespeare’s history plays get reinvented. After all, there’s not one emotion that erupted on Gettysburg that wasn’t “rehearsed” at Agincourt, Tewkesbury and Bosworth Field.

Highly Recommended

from Timeout Chicago

by Gwen Purdom

War-wearied General Robert E. Lee is roused in the middle of the night to analyze the Union troops’ movements with his fellow officers in Lifeline Theatre’s The Killer Angels. The men’s strategizing is set against a quiet din of crickets chirping and distant guitar strumming by soldiers on the other side of camp. Cigar smoke and tentside fires form a thick haze in the air. These understated sensory choices aren’t groundbreaking, but they’re just a few of the ways the smart production uses subtle suggestion to animate a stark, intimate space and transform it into the epic scenes of one of America’s most storied conflicts.

Adapted for the stage by Karen Tarjan, Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg (which was also turned into a 1993 movie) takes some historical liberties but caught the imaginations of a Civil War–obsessed public by incorporating real people and largely real events from those three July days in 1863. There are a lot of bearded men in uniform to keep straight in the play, but the plot centers on Confederate commander Lee (Don Bender), his second-in-command Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Hickey) and the Union’s charismatic Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Michael McKeogh), among more than a dozen other historical figures portrayed by a cast of ten playing multiple parts. Some knowledge of the war and the battle’s context is helpful, but not essential. The actors bring an authentic humanity to their roles—McKeogh and Bender especially—which makes the story engaging, if potentially hard to keep up with if you don’t know your battlefield history.

There’s not a lot of backstory or the deep character development some other Civil War stories include. Wives, sweethearts and children are mentioned only in passing, or in the familiar, haunting ballads played between scenes by a narrating troubadour (Matt Fletcher). This piece is about war and the game-changing battle itself—both its tactical planning (or lack thereof) and its jarring, inherent drama. It would be easy with such legendary material as the fighting at Little Round Top and Pickett’s ill-fated Charge to go too big or too hard, but director Matt Miller’s interpretation is restrained and thoughtful. When you’re talking about tens of thousands of people killing each other in the hills and orchards of Pennsylvania with the fate of a nation at stake, a little goes a long way.