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Couriers and Contrabands

Theatre Review by Howard Miller


Krystel Lucas, Heather Hollingsworth, and Eric T. Miller
Photo by Al Foote III

It's spy vs. spy vs. spy in Victor Lesniewski's riveting Civil War drama Couriers and Contrabands at TBG Theatre, where friend cannot be distinguished from foe, and where the outcome of battles turns on the passing of accurate information across enemy lines.

Smartly directed by Kareem Fahmy (credited, as well, as co-developer) and boasting an impeccable ensemble of actors, Couriers and Contrabands takes place in the spring of 1864, during the month leading up to the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, along a major supply line for the Confederate army. It opens in the near dark, the audience surrounded by lightning flashes and great booms of thunder that foretell the booms of cannons to come (Mark Van Hare provides the excellent sound design as well as the original era-evocative music).

Through the lightning, we can barely distinguish an African American man passing along a packet of documents to a fellow spy and receiving another packet in exchange. Later, we will come to learn that the man is Willie (Luke Forbes), who is posing as a slave in one of the two neighboring households where the action occurs. Willie is a "Contraband," a term used to describe escaped slaves or other free blacks who were working for the Union Army.

An air of authenticity suffuses the play, from David Esler's set design to Sarafina Bush's period costumes to the Southern accents that the actors employ without a trace of "fiddle-de-dee" exaggeration. We fellow the machinations of a group of Confederate spies who are using one of the homes as their headquarters.

On hand are the group's leader, Thomas (Michael Schantz); his sister Lottie (Heather Hollingsworth), who has managed to sweet-talk her way into the inner circle of a Union major; Thomas's close friend James (Eric T. Miller); Lottie's dear friend and neighbor Mary (Helen Cespedes), for whom Willie is a servant; and a young corporal, George (Jeremy Beck), who is there to keep an eye on things for Confederate General Beauregard, much to Thomas's annoyance, feeling he himself is being spied upon and his every action second-guessed. Ignored in the background is Lottie's housemaid Nancy (Kristel Lucas), another slave whose eyes and ears are always open for news she can pass along. The truth is, no one knows whom they can trust, and there are many surprises and revelations to come as events unfold.

The marvel of Couriers and Contrabands is that the playwright has made the detailed conversations about espionage, troop movements, and the ongoing war itself so utterly compelling, and has populated the work with characters who are so richly drawn that —no matter where our sympathies lie —we wish for all of them to get through unscathed. We also learn a lot about this historic time period, but never feel talked down to, a remarkable feat for a work like this that deals with a very specific component of the Civil War for which most of the audience will have scant prior knowledge.

The topper in all of this is the outstanding performances by every member of the cast, each of them inhabiting their roles with utter conviction. If there is a standout, it is Jeremy Beck as George, the young corporal who goes from being irritatingly full of himself, to charmingly goofy as Mary captures his heart, to later becoming a suspicious and belligerent soldier as the weeks drag on and the tensions rise. In the end, we can see that war brings out both the best and the worst in people, and how the Civil War truly did divide brother from brother, friend from friend.


Couriers and Contrabands
Through September 26
TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix


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