Sunday, August 16, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Garrett Heater's Lincoln's Blood at the Flamboyan Theater (at the Clemente) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Garrett Heater's Lincoln's Blood at the Flamboyan Theater (in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Lincoln's Blood
Written & Directed by Garrett Heater
Costumes by Debbie Ritchey (CNY Costumes)
Flamboyan Theater (at the Clemente)
107 Suffolk Street
New York, New York 10002
Reviewed 8/14/15 

What do know about President Abraham Lincoln's assassination? If you are an average citizen, you probably know John Wilkes Booth, an actor desperate to aid the dying Confederacy, shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. If you are above average in terms of your knowledge of history, you will know the President and his wife were attending a performance of Our American Cousin on April 14, 1865, just five days after General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. You might also know that after shooting the President, John Wilkes Booth jumped onto the stage injuring his leg before escaping through the back of the theater. (Some heard Booth cry out "Sic semper tyrannis" while others heard him say, "The South is avenged!)" Booth was later caught and killed. His co-conspirators, each assigned to murder a different leader in the government, failed in their goals, and the injured President was carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he died the next morning. John Wilkes Booth had imagined there would be celebrations and that the South would rise again now that Lincoln was dead, but instead of being viewed as a hero by Confederate sympathizers, he was reviled as a coward (called a "misguided, yellow-bellied, asp" by Southern newspapers) who would be the cause of severe retaliation against the South by an angry North. 

Lincoln's Blood focuses on the other people who were deeply and devastatingly affected by the assassination, which included President Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (whose spending habits, abrasive opinions, and haughty demeanor made her an isolated figure in the White House); Elizabeth Keckley (Mrs. Lincoln's African-American seamstress and closest friend who later wrote a tell-all book entitled Behind The Scenes In The Lincoln White House: Memories Of An African-American Seamstress, chronicling her life as a slave before buying her freedom through her appointment as a dressmaker to the First Lady. The act of publishing the book, which was deemed unfavorable to Mrs. Lincoln, ostracized her from Washington society); Major Henry Rathbone (who was wounded trying to apprehend Booth in the box and later, continuously recreated in his mind what happened on the evening of the assassination to ponder whether he could have done something differently in order to have prevented the President's death); Clara Harris (Rathbone's fiancee, who was also in the box sitting next to Mrs. Lincoln on the night of the assassination. The white dress she was wearing, supposedly covered in Lincoln's blood was kept by her following her marriage to Henry. It was later thought to be cursed and was bricked up in their bedroom closet. Clara is eventually murdered by her jealous and deranged husband who suffered from guilt, depression, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and probably PTSD); Mary Surratt (executed for harboring at her Boarding House the men connected to the assassination); and John Wilkes Booth (who interacts with Mary Surratt, detailing his aborted kidnapping plot to get President Lincoln to release Confederate prisoners and asking her to deliver various packages to different locations). These individuals suffered consequences as a result of Lincoln's death that are not often focused on. They were the unintended collateral damage of the decision to kill the President and that is what this play is about.

Garrett Heater meticulously researched the facts he included in his script. As a result, Lincoln's Blood is historically accurate with the possible exception of his suggestion that Mary Surratt may have been motivated more by her infatuation with John Wilkes Booth than by her commitment to the Southern cause. While waiting in prison for the appointed time of her execution, Mrs. Surratt reflects on the many flirtations and interactions she had with John Wilkes Booth and wonders now whether she was misled by a man who had no real feelings for her (after all, Booth had five other girlfriends, one of which was his fiancee). Now, Mrs. Surratt, wondering how she got to the point of being hours away from her execution, would prefer "life over blind allegiance." 

The interactions between Surratt and Booth are one of the three mini-plays being simultaneously unfolded on different timelines before the audience on stage. The second mini-drama involves Major Henry Rathbone and his step-sister Clara Harris. Major Rathbone, having already failed to prevent the President's assassination, spends years going over every detail in his head regarding the decisions he made just before and just after the assassination wondering whether he could have done something differently to effect an alternative outcome, but it always turns out the same. The third mini-story involves First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley. We learn of Mrs. Lincoln's jealousy, neediness, and pettiness, as well as her sharp tongue (Major Rathbone is heard to quip, "If they had shot her out of a cannon at the Confederates, the war would have been over in a day."). We also hear Elizabeth recall the premonition President Lincoln had regarding his own death. He supposedly dreamt there was a death in the White House. Approaching a mourner during a dream, he asked, "who is in the coffin," to which the person responded, "the President."

The writing is non-linear and broken into many scenes from before and after the assassination of President Lincoln, who does not appear as a character in this play. Garrett Heater's inspired writing is high-quality and makes for an intense and compelling theater experience. However, given that each of the three mini-dramas is unfolding along different timelines and, in each, we are sometimes in the past and other times in the present, it is easy to get confused. We are not always able to determine when, or even if, Mary Todd Lincoln is in her room in the White House, somewhere else, or in Bellevue Asylum. Similarly, I had no idea when Major Rathbone was at home or in a German Asylum for the Criminally Insane because the same bed was used. As for Mary Surratt's story, we could easily tell when she was at her Boarding House or waiting for execution in her jail cell, but it was not clear when we were witnessing reality and when we were observing memories. There was also one scene between John Wilkes Booth and Mary Surratt that was so similar I thought the actors had made a mistake and accidently performed the scene twice. These confusing elements detracted from the audiences' understanding of the play. Extremely loud character outbursts, such as when Mrs. Surratt repeatedly called out for her son, Mary Todd Lincoln called for Elizabeth, and Major Rathbone called for his fiance, were also distracting and unnecessary.

The excellent cast included Garrett Heater (the author) as Major Henry Rathbone, Maya Dwyer as Clara Harris, Kate Huddleston as Mary Todd Lincoln, Karin Franklin-King as Elizabeth Keckley, Karis Wiggins as Mary Surratt, and Ryan Santiago as John Wilkes Booth. The Covey Theater Company, out of Syracuse, New York, produced this entry into Fringe NYC (2015). In 2014, that same company entered Lizzie Borden Took An Axe, and in 2013, it entered Playing God, all which were written by Garrett Heater. In the Director's Note to Lincoln's Blood, Mr. Heater says, "As a memory play, each main character simultaneously lives in their past and present; reliving old memories and conversations, desperate to change crucial details, or repeating mistakes without respite. Longing for relief and yearning for companionship, all the while living somewhere between reality and fantasy." 

Lincoln's Blood is not a comedy. It is a very serious look at the horrifying aftermath of one of the most notorious acts in American history and the six people who were most directly affected by it. The play examines the excruciating burden of memory, from which, for some, there is no escape. Tickets cost $18.00 each. You can purchase them at For more information about The Covey Theatre Company, go to 

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