The world of 1865 Washington, DC is living and breathing in The Wandering Theatre Company’s production of The Trial of Mrs. Surratt. Lanie Robertson’s script explores the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination, specifically focusing on the perspective of Mrs. Surratt, who is accused of providing a meeting place for Booth’s conspirators in her boarding home and tavern.
Many recognizable historical characters appear in this production. The self-assured John Wilkes Booth (Matthew Tillet) often comes through the tavern with his smattering of lovers, including the young Johnny Surratt (Matthew Zimmerman), and Louis Weichman (Tariq Aamir Malik). Johnny’s disappearance immediately following the shooting and Louis’s betrayal ultimately lead to Mrs. Surratt’s sentencing.
Director Natalie Villamonte Zito uses viewpoints technique as her approach for configuring actors onstage. The ensemble members, who carry themselves with grace and ease, are always present and remain in perpetual motion.The movement is not incredibly pertinent to the story line, rather it creates an atmosphere around the events of the play and gives the sense of looking in on a world in its entirety. Despite all of the extra motion, Zito’s expert blocking appropriately directs attention to the main action of the show. It did feel as though actual scenes were neglected because of the work required to organize the ensemble. Within the scenes I craved more connection and objective from the capable actors.
Large chunks of dialogue are lost as actors collectively rush over lines and get derailed by their use of early American accents. The poor acoustics of the theatre space contribute to the problem. The parts of the script that I was able to follow were thought-provoking and well written. The structure, which skips around in time and space, adds another layer of interest.
Adding to the atmosphere is the picturesque lighting designed by Jak Prince. Otherwise dark, surreal and beautiful, I only occasionally wished for more light on the faces of the actors. Prince also designed the set, which consists of three large tables and a few benches that actors manipulate to indicate different locations throughout the play. The period costumes are show-stopping. They are accredited to The Big Red Barn Collection, The Wandering Theatre Company, and Charlotte Campbell.
Zito has also incorporated adaptations of Civil War battle hymns into the transitions. All of the songs are acapella and it seems to take some time for the collective sound to gel. I wouldn’t be opposed to the addition of a pitch pipe or musical instrument so that the singers can begin the numbers with more confidence. The cast consists of some beautiful individual voices, including Mathew Zimmerman as Johnny Surratt, Kate McGarrigle as Anna Surratt, and Tariq Aamir Malik as Louis Weichman.
The Trial of Mrs. Surratt is a solid production that gives new life to an important piece of American history. The themes of injustice, abuse of power, and what it means to be loyal to your country are as relevant today as they were in 1865. How exciting it would be to see this production remounted at Ford’s Theatre, where in another time these characters often graced the stage or attended a matinee.
The Trial of Mrs. Surratt is playing through Saturday, July 23, 2016 at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.
Running Time: Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes.
Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page.
RATING: Best of the 2016 Capital Fringe