Entertainment » Theatre

The Bloodhound Law

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 27, 2015
Brian Bradford, Christopher Kidder-Mostrom, Alex Glossman, John Blick
Brian Bradford, Christopher Kidder-Mostrom, Alex Glossman, John Blick  

City Lit Theater closes both its 35th season and its five-year Civil War Sesquicentennial Project with Kristine Thatcher's "The Bloodhound Law." Thatcher's exploration of the abolitionist struggle in Missouri and Illinois is an elegant, almost impressionistic collection of scenes that lets the drama of the events speak for itself. City Lit's production, under the direction of Terry McCabe, is rough around the edges in some ways, but ultimately does well by the challenging, powerful material.

The play begins in St. Louis, Missouri, following minister, editor and abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy as he flees the city under pressure from strident advocates of slavery and the more insidious moderate voices for liberal compromise and obeying the law of the land. Lovejoy's story dominates the first act, which culminates in his murder as he and his brothers attempt to drive back a mob intent on burning his printing press.

The second act picks up the thread of the story in Chicago, focusing on the collaborative efforts of black and white abolitionists like Charles Dyer and John Jones both to secure safe passage for fugitive slaves and to resist the coming Compromise of 1850, championed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Woven through letter-of-the-law debates are the stories of slaves and superficially free men, presented quietly and without melodrama and all the more powerful for that.

The play would be challenging to stage in any space with a cast of nine on stage at all times. Here, Dustin Pettegrew provides a flat, pale-blue backdrop with a townscape stage right and a lone tree stage left. The gallery of nine chairs upstage center appropriately suggests a jury box and grandstands so that the actors not engaged in a particular scene, along with the audience, bear witness to both private machinations and the public face the deep moral sacrifices made in the name of "public peace" and "The Union."

Each of the nine actors plays multiple roles. LaVisa Angela Williams' costume design supports quick shifts from character to character, building on basic mid-19th century men's wear with strategic use of hats and jackets. Catherine Gillespie's dialect coaching also helps to signal character transitions for individual actors and, more importantly, steers the production clear of any overly simplistic demonization of any particular region or class, rightly depicting the political picture as bleak from south to north and east to west.

Although the the identities of big names like Lovejoy and Douglas are clearly central to the historical events depicted, this is a drama, and it's more effective for the loose, fluid approach to the overlapped casting. It almost doesn't matter whether the audience follows every time an actor slips out of one role and into another because the stories and sentiments bleed into one another.

Attention rightly paid to what works about this staging, there are a handful of aspects of the production that don't work as well as they should. The show employs "spirituals" at three points. The cast enters singing "Down in the River to Pray"; they return after the intermission to "Wade in the Water"; and one of the two cast member of color leads the rest in "I'll Fly Away."

The a cappella arrangements are shaky, and the choices somewhat questionable, given the play's subject matter: The first two are (likely, though their origins are disputed) appropriated African American spirituals, whereas the last has clear roots in white religious tradition.

Because the play is so scene-driven, each act contains a number of breaks signaled by lighting cues. The opening dialogue for each vignette thus occurs in near-complete darkness. Although it's clearly the right decision not to sacrifice the show's pacing, it took several interludes like this before it was clear the choice was a deliberate facet of Liz Cooper's Lighting Design, rather than a series of missed cues. Accompanying sound cues might have better supported this device and subtly underscored the horror of scenes like the execution by burning of a free black man arrested for a "breach of the peace."

In the cast, David Lawrence Hamilton and Brian Bradford deserve first mention for the skill with which they represent a variety of African-American voices. Hamilton's performances are quiet, patient. He's painstakingly careful and tamped down even in the most desperate moments of the men he plays. It's nerve-wracking to watch from a privileged point of view, wrestling with one's own frustrated desire for these characters to "just do something" and the stark realization of the danger inherent in every step they take.

Bradford's voice is younger and more vigorous. It also resonates painfully as he argues with his white compatriots that black men and women can no longer depend on either the timid kindness of sympathizers or the institutions of power that systematically deprive them of their liberty. Bradford's performance culminates beautifully in the very end scene, where we see the young, idealistic employee of Elijah Lovejoy from the play's first act, broken almost entirely by his life after the abolitionist's murder.

David Fink, Patrick Thornton and Rob Glidden are also stalwart performers, shifting seamlessly from coldly pragmatic to fiery idealists and selling their convictions along all points of the political spectrum. Alex Glossman and Paul Chakrin are capable in more supporting roles, but each distinguishes himself when the role calls him to the forefront.

As Elijah Lovejoy, Christoper Kidder-Mostrom had some unfortunately obvious struggles with his dialogue (although from an actor's perspective, the play must be almost nightmarishly wordy). Early on, this undermined the character's fire, but he recovered himself admirably after those few rough moments in early going.

"The Bloodhound Law" runs through May 24 at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-293-3682 or visit www.citylit.org.

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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