For the next four weeks, in case you won't want to miss it, there's a much smaller stage production (five actors, 87 seats) incorporating those very same elements, being performed at L.A.'s Inside the Ford theater.
When playwright Jim Leonard first began scoping out the idea of a play about the U.S. Civil War a decade ago, it would've been impossible to envision how timely such a work might become, opening the same week as the swearing-in of our first African American president. Although many particulars have changed, some struggles from the days of Blue versus Gray parallel those of the current blue state versus red state era.
But whereas Barack Obama's inauguration was a large-scale drama on a giant canvas with a cast of millions, Leonard's play "Battle Hymn" is an intimate, human-scale piece. And while the former event already has come and gone, "Battle Hymn" aspires to be a less time-locked, tragicomic meditation on the interplay between a nation's destiny and an individual's ability to shape his or her fate.
"Lincoln had a great line, 'the terrifying birth of freedom,' " Leonard says during a rehearsal break. "If all men are created equal, what does that mean? That's one of the most radical concepts ever. I don't want to get too political, but the Bush-Gore election, when the country was so divided, and watching it disintegrate post -9/11, I kept going back to how fragile is freedom."
Plot-wise, "Battle Hymn" is fairly straightforward, if surreal.
Its pregnant heroine, 16-year-old Martha, traverses the American landscape both in space and time, as the play moves from the blazing guns at Ft. Sumter in 1861 to San Francisco in the 1967 Summer of Love and beyond.
Abandoned by her father and separated from her lover, Martha is driven along by her determination to find a place to give birth and raise her baby, far from the blood-drenched reality of the ascendant American Century.
Suzy Jane Hunt shoulders the demanding lead role, while four other actors -- Bill Heck, William Salyers, John Short and Robert Manning Jr. -- play all the secondary characters, male and female alike. Nothing better to lift the gloom off that old Eros-Thanatos showdown than a vignette with bearded men in dresses.
Not to mention the singing cows that pop up at one point during Martha's picaresque odyssey.
"This whole play is like the funniest church music you've ever heard," says Michael Levine, who keeps busy composing for TV's "Cold Case" but took some time to write the play's incidental music. "It's elegiac. It's about great issues, but it's a hoot from top to bot- tom."
Reviewing the play in The Times, critic Philip Brandes praised "Battle Hymn" as an "absurdist road trip" that is "refreshingly original, smart and engaging."
Part of the journey
The latest production by the much-lauded Circle X Theatre Co., "Battle Hymn" reaches for the kind of aesthetic innovation that's characteristic of the L.A. nonprofit ensemble. Tim Wright, the company's artistic director, sees "Battle Hymn" as very much in keeping with the mission of Circle X, whose recent shows include Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" and Will Eno's "The Flu Season."
"Part of our purpose for existing is trying to push ourselves further every time," he says. Speaking of the company of about 50 disparately employed artists, Wright says, "When we need them to get together, we sound the alarm.
Innumerable American artists have grappled with the monumental and human dimensions of the U.S. Civil War, from Winslow Homer and Eugene O'Neill to documentary maker Ken Burns, whose landmark PBS series impressed both Leonard and "Battle Hymn" director John Langs. Leonard cites two particular dramatic works in connection with "Battle Hymn."
"Plays that I love are 'Mother Courage' and 'Cloud 9,' " he says, referring to Bertolt Brecht's saga of the indomitable war survivor and Caryl Churchill's gender-flopping, time-switching play about human freedom and enslavement, "because they're both epic and really grounded in their time but both really historic, writing not as allegory but as a myth that we flow from."
Langs says that although he watched Burns' multipart work, "I'm not a history buff or a Civil War buff" (unlike Leonard, a haunter of battlefields). For him, the play unfolded through long rehearsal hours spent with the actors and many of his regular design collaborators.
"So much of it is defined by what Suzy has brought to the role," says Langs. He compares Martha's strange encounters throughout the play with Alice's adventures through the looking glass.
Despite its fierce comic undertow, "Battle Hymn" covers a lot of thematically solemn and hallowed ground. A woman is subjected to electroshock treatment. An atomic bomb blast ripples across an on-stage video projection.
The terrible beauty born of traumatic events can be frightening to behold. Yet isn't that one of the reasons theater exists?
Leonard ponders the lifeline of his play within the lifeline of history. "In the five weeks that we're going to run, this play marks events, it marks time," he says, clearly pleased at the thought.
And not just any ordinary time, either. "This is the first piece of art," says Langs, "I will put out in a post-Obama" world.