When it was first produced by the Folger Theatre in 1979, Robert Ingham's "Custer" took place in a windswept purgatory, where the ghosts of Custer's last stand gathered to discuss what went wrong at the battle of Little Big Horn and who deserved the blame. The talky play was filled with some interesting historical footnotes, but practically no drama at all.
Last night, the Round House Theatre opened a new version of the work, now set in a Chautauqua tent in 1896, where Custer's widow and a handful of survivors from the 7th Cavalry, augmented by a few actors, also happen to discuss what went wrong at the battle of Little Big Horn and who deserved the blame. The work still has some interesting historical tidbits to pass along. But, dramatically, it's as inert as ever.
What we are supposedly seeing at the Round House is the 20th anniversary commemoration of Custer's heroic defeat, presided over by Elizabeth Bacon Custer (Bonnie Horan) -- who, in fact, became a star of the Chautauqua circuit -- extolling the virtues of her vainglorious husband. The evening is meant to be a kind of show-and-tell session, in the course of which precious letters in ornate frames are put on display, patriotic songs are sung, and an actor (Brian Davis), garbed in Custer's black velveteen uniform, strikes suitibly dramatic poses for the edification of the public.
The Chautauqua program, however, does not run its appointed course for two reasons: Col. F.W. Benteen (Dion Anderson), one of the two men Mrs. Custer holds responsible for the death of her husband, is sharing the podium with her. What's more, he is drinking heavily. Just why he's part of this tent show is not evident, but it is obvious, as he pours himself shot after shot, that he is not going to suffer her accusations sitting down.
Mrs. Custer has hired an actor to play the other villain, the cowardly Maj. Marcus A. Reno, who, she believes, also turned his back on the slaughter of Custer and his 230 men. But midway through the show, who should pop up in the audience but the real Maj. Reno himself (Allan Jirikowic)! He's going to have his say, too.
Director David Cromwell, who has conceived this new adapatation, clearly wants to repair the work's original deficiency -- its general aimlessness -- by anchoring it in a specific time and place. But his inventions compound the confusions in a script so hung up on anecdotes, battle strategies and capsule biographies as to suggest a badly organized term paper. The Folger version culminated with a face-off between two archenemies, Benteen and Custer, each trying to justify his actions. In this version, Custer has been reduced to a paid supernumerary, but the role of Mrs. Custer has not been built up sufficiently to fill the void. It's a terribly lopsided confrontation.
Stylistically, the production is a jumble. The actors Elizabeth Custer has made part of her traveling tent show perform with the rhetorical flourishes and awkward gestures of the amateur. But the survivors of the battle, who are also part of her show, are presumably drawing on real feelings. Then you have Custer, who is only a stand-in. So why does he act as if he is cut to the quick when Benteen accuses him of recklessness and demagoguery?
This "Custer" just doesn't seem to make much sense, and since Cromwell hasn't even exploited the tent show conceit very theatrically, you are apt to reap few rewards for the concerted attention the production requires. As Benteen, Anderson gives a large, swaggering performance that looks increasingly out of place midst the Lilliputian performances elsewhere. Mark Jaster stutters and fumbles amusingly but pointlessly as one of the amateur actors called upon to reenact history. As Horan plays Mrs. Custer -- with clasped hands and benevolent nods of her gray head -- she appears to be presiding over a muffin commercial, not the defense of her sainted husband.
"Custer" raises all sorts of questions about what really happened during that fateful massacre. But the big question -- the one you will take home with you -- is "Why did Round House think this play deserved a second chance?"