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Oh, Say Can You See: National anthem’s back story in sharp Fringe play

Jordan Kaplan as Francis Scott Key and Neal Tucker as John Skinner in CONTRAFACT OF FREEDOM at Capital Fringe Festival. (Britannie Bond and Patricia Lynn)

Good new history plays are hard to find, but the New York-based Hunger & Thirst Theatre Collective has one in its Capital Fringe Festival entry “Contrafact of Freedom,” the back story behind our impossible-to-sing national anthem.

This information-packed play by Alex Pappas depicts Francis Scott Key — Frankie, as he is often called here — as pleasant and apolitical until the War of 1812 forces choices on him. Pappas depicts this by degrees in nicely written scenes that illustrate Key’s home life (five kids and another on the way), the escalating military conflict and his sketchy poetic abilities.

Some of Pappas’s dramatic exchanges are bracingly smart, especially a negotiation between British and American officials in which the moral high ground shifts several times. The acting is very good, with Michael Hardart doing especially colorful work as a doctor and friend of the Key family who ends up as a British prisoner. The program notes claim a large degree of historical accuracy as the plot steadily makes its way toward Fort McHenry and the night when Key feverishly penned the lyrics to a pre-existing English drinking song.

Pappas deftly weaves music through the story, making it easy to track how the idea for the anthem gets into Key’s head. Director Sarah Hankins and the well-drilled, easygoing ensemble make a real virtue of that, playing piano, mandolin, violin, flute and percussion while creating their own sound effects. It’s one of the sharpest performances of the festival so far.

This is not a big-time script that needs to be hustled onto a major stage posthaste. But the troupe’s civic seriousness is infectious, and so is the confident style.

Promotional photo for the production Contrafact of Freedom, now playing at the Capital Fringe Festival. (Hunger & Thirst Theatre Collective/Handout)

“Contrafact of Freedom,” by Alex Pappas. Presented by Hunger & Thirst Theatre Collective. July 16 at 8:15 p.m., July 17 at 6:30 p.m., July 19 at 12:15 p.m., and July 20 at 2:30 p.m. in Lab II of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NW. Visit

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.



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