REVIEW: 'Ben Butler' an exquisite game of cat and mouse

Iowa Theatre Artists Company drama twists through desperate maze of manipulations

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HOMESTEAD — “Ben Butler” is one of the most thought-provoking, smart and surprising plays I’ve seen in a long time.

And in the hands of four seasoned pros and the marvelous talent of the Iowa Theatre Artists Company, it just sings in the intimate, historic surroundings of Die Heimat Next Door Event Center in Homestead, one of the Amana Colonies.

Iowa Playwrights Workshop alum Richard Strand’s keen, searing drama will make you laugh out loud, applaud and gasp at the cheeky cat-and-mouse game unfolding between a Union major general, a runaway slave and two other key characters, set in the early days of the Civil War.

But first, it will make you uncomfortable. With the current state of racial tension in America, the opening scenes become even more intense when runaway slave Shepard Mallory demands to speak to Maj. Gen. Ben Butler, only to be disparaged by the adjutant lieutenant, then eyed warily by the general.

Barrington Vaxter of Iowa City is nothing short of amazing as the slave seeking asylum at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Vaxter alternates fluidly between a downcast gaze and slumped demeanor that has been beaten into Mallory, and an angry, upright defiance born out of fear of certain death should he and two other slaves be returned to their owner at a Confederate fort.

Vaxter moves instantly between contrition and confrontation in body and voice.

Jason Grubbe of Iowa City is perfect in the way he allows us to see Butler’s mind work as he tries to carve out a new model of a modern major general, a role he’s had for only a few short weeks. He’s blustery with an underlying sense of compassion he’s afraid to admit until his hand is forced.

Slave and general circle each other in an elaborate dance of intellect and manipulation, while the West Point-trained Lieutenant Kelly (K. Michael Moore of Iowa City) cuts in with scathing observations, ready to fire his pistol at the first provocation.

The next pawn in Strand’s elaborate chess game is Major Cary (Tom Milligan of West Amana). He’s sent to claim and retrieve the slaves, and is outwitted at every turn.

Watching the transfer of power between the players is so delicious that when the play ended, I couldn’t believe it was over.

Director Tom Johnson and stage manager Meg Merckens have hinted this could be the final show for the acting company they formed in 2008.

“We’ve been trying to retire for four years,” Merckens said during intermission at Sunday’s matinee.

This production, which continues through Oct. 22, will leave audiences wanting more.

IF YOU GO

What: Iowa Theatre Artists Company presents “Ben Butler”

Where: Die Heimat Next Door Event Center, 4430 V St., Homestead

When: Through Oct. 22; 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 adult, $22.50 senior, $10 student; (319) 622-3222

Information: Iowatheatreartists.org

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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