Theater Review: The Killer Angels, Soldiers of Gettysburg at the Maverick Theater

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…” The beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

“To be a good soldier, you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.” General Robert E. Lee

With a stellar cast, the Maverick’s thrilling staged production of The Killer Angels, Soldiers of Gettysburg depicts both the horror and the reality that leads up to the one defining event in America’s Civil War that led to the final Union victory. Not only is this work of theater art an important and monumental history lesson, but it is also a stirring and engaging play that leaves the audience with a renewed sense of patriotism – perhaps, one that has been buried in recent times due to the impact of today’s current events and the continuous strife in our political arena.

The ghosts of one of the worst blood baths in the Civil War’s history are laid out on that battlefield, and even today, millions of people stand in tribute to the sacrifice of the soldiers who faced the deadliest battle of the Civil War. The three-day Gettysburg Battle ended on July 3rd, 1863, and Brian Newell’s adaptation of The Killer Angels is a punch to the gut that strips away any façade about this bloody conflict.

The play adopts a highly effective narrative structure, probing the events leading up to the final day’s end of the battle and the Union’s victory. The portrayal of the gory fight scenes is remarkably effective as the audience imagines the action through the theater’s use of special effects, lighting and sound, props, and a unique staging that plays into the story while full use of the Maverick’s intimate space is utilized. Within the theater, two stages face each other, and a large plank is laid out between the stages. The audience on both sides faces the plank where most of the action occurs, similar to viewing an event with u-shaped seating. In other words, there are no “bad seats.” Because the plank is table height, the characters become larger than life and easy to see and hear.

The lighting design reflects down from the high ceiling and highlights the characters in a way that shows the heavy dust on their jackets and the dirt on their shoes. The costumes look authentic. This is one more technique demonstrating the authenticity of theater magic. One may have concluded that it was likely impossible to turn a small theater into a battlefield; however, Maverick’s innovative production team makes it seem effortless.

Behind a long “stone wall,” the audience views “the fight” as a group of soldiers shoots muzzle-loading rifle-muskets across the two stages, and once they run out of ammunition, they charge with large bayonets at Little Round Top. The patriotic and incidental music is riveting. The sound effects echoing the relentless heavy artillery along with the wailing of infantry in combat is very effective and “takes the audience on a journey” to the battlefield and alongside a soldier where his fear, tenaciousness, drive, determination, and sense of survival all accumulate in that arena of war.

Not all Gettysburg soldiers were trained military men, and the Union was forced to wait for more troops once they learned they were outnumbered. More than 80% of the new troops were volunteers, except for a mere half dozen men; they fought the fight. They were civilians, husbands, lovers, sons, fathers, and brothers – they were also the cavalry. Alongside their brothers of war, they became the warriors, the heroes, and the heart and soul of America’s fundamental right of equality and democratic society. We, as a nation, cannot let them down.

Newell’s play shows the firsthand account of the leaders of this war, their strategies, their defenses, the playing fields, and the tough decisions they had to make. The faces and voices of the colonels, the generals, and the captains take us on this journey, but it is the foot soldiers with whom the viewers might feel the most empathy.

The audience learns about the miles and miles of marching, the exhaustion and fatigue, and the loss of limbs, sickness, wounds, and other atrocities of war that these brave men endured. And, then, there was the unsurmountable loss of life. Through the power of really good storytelling and the realism of Newell’s stage play, his exceptionally well-casted and capable actors bring a “real life” experience of Gettysburg and its key players.

We see the unfolding of General Lee’s (Brian Kojac) confident and ambitious attempt, but still deadly error, in having the troops attack the Union Army at Gettysburg. General Longstreet (Brock Joseph) tried to talk him out of it, and he even offered an alternative method of attack, but Lee was determined and chose to think that his army was unbeatable. It was Lee’s shameful and critical mistake.

From the Union, Colonel Chamberlain (Jaycob Hunter) was firm in doing what he deemed to be the right move, and by taking the higher ground, in the end, the Union was victorious. This dashed all hopes of the Confederacy becoming an independent nation, and although we have come a long way, we are still battling for equality.

This intense drama hits the audience with an emotional wallop and, again, makes us realize, and perhaps remember, in spite of today’s turmoil, strife, and current political storms, what being an American truly is all about and most importantly, this production is a great reflection of America’s devout commitment to freedom.

Under the direction of Brian Newell, The Killer Angels is a master class in how to stage a war in an intimate theater setting and make it as realistic as any film depiction of a significant battle. Newell’s play, in particular, is not only the small theater with the big ideas, but in two-fold, it is the true story of “the little engine that could.” As each cast member stands in a line and recites the moving words of The Gettysburg Address, one realizes that the Maverick’s Killer Angels, Soldiers of Gettysburg is not just “a pretty face,” it is a monumental piece that will stay with viewers long after the show is over.

While reading the credits, you might think that this production is a “one-man show” since the incomparably multi-talented Brian Newell is the Writer, Producer, and Director; in addition, he is also the man responsible for the Lighting, Sound, and Costume Design; however, “It takes a village,” or, in this case, perhaps an army?

When asked by the Novelist Michael Shaara why Newell wanted to translate his novel into a stage play, he explained that he didn’t think a lot of people on the Southern California Coast actually knew that much about Gettysburg, and he wanted to tell the story of the men on that battlefield and what happened in 1863, in that small Pennsylvania farming town, and how it shaped our country. Newell knows his stuff, and this play practically drips with the deep texture and griminess of a real-life experience. The Killer Angels is a brilliant work of theater art and truly a passion project for Newell, and just like a war…it cannot be done alone.

Newell’s team consists of Director’s Assistant – Kyle Hawkins, Music Composer and Conductor – James Horner, with Additional Music Arrangements by Stephen Hulsey. Heidi Newell is the Seamstress, the Stone Wall Effects are created by Chris Jones, Jim Book, and Brian Newell, and Prop Rifles and Pistols are by Jim Book and Mitch Faris. Technical Director is John Gaw and Rick Lawhorn. Chase Thayer and Jackson Newell are all part of the Production Crew. The Scenic Artist is Alex Conway.

So, who is the protagonist in this real-life drama? As I watched the chilling events of the Gettysburg Battle unfold, I soon discovered that there was no single standout in this play because this a powerful and award-winning ensemble where each actor generously shares in the brotherhood of The Killer Angels. At the same time, each performer gives the performance of a lifetime.

Runs through July 3rd
Maverick Theater 110 E. Walnut Ave, Unit B, Fullerton

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