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‘1776’ Spurs Reconsideration of America’s Founding Spirit

  • From left, Anne Downey, acting as George Read; Mark Boutwell, as Caesar Rodney; Danielle Cohen, as Thomas McKean; Jonathan Verge, as Edward Rutledge; and Anthony Helm, as Lyman Hall, prepare for a scene during a rehearsal for the musical '1776' at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on March 27, 2018. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Danielle Cohen, acting as Thomas McKean, left, and Julie Frew, acting as Joseph Hewes, prepare their costumes before a rehearsal for the musical '1776' at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on March 27, 2018. Director Perry Allison cast seven women to portray male characters. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, Taylor Hooper, acting as John Adams, listens to the conversation that John Severinghaus, who is acting as Benjamin Franklin, and Will Moore, who is acting as Richard Henry Lee, are having during a rehearsal for the musical '1776' at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on March 27, 2018. In the production, delegates debate whether to declare independence. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jenn Langhus, who is playing as Abigail Adams, waves to her husband, John Adams (not pictured), during a rehearsal for the musical '1776' at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on March 27, 2018. The production opens this weekend with shows on both Friday and Saturday nights. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2018

Midway through a recent rehearsal for the musical 1776, director Perry Allison declared a break, and the actor who plays founding father John Hancock chose a seat in the fifth row of the Briggs Opera House.

“I was very excited to be considered for a man’s role,” said Katie Kitchel, a music educator in her regular life. “After the last election and everything that followed, I was inspired to be able to be a woman playing the president of the Continental Congress.”

Thetford resident and veteran theater director Perry Allison found inspiration for this revival of Peter Stone’s early-1970s musical in the conjunction of the 2016 presidential election, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against powerful men and the popularity of the musical Hamilton. Allison and her company are calling it The 1776 Project.

The play itself opens Friday night at the Briggs, in White River Junction, but that’s just the center of the action. The 26-person cast features seven women who are playing men, six of them among the delegates debating whether the colonies should declare independence. The project’s mission runs as deep as the nation’s origins and history.

“I think from the beginning, I really wanted this to be more than a piece of entertainment,” Allison said between rehearsals last week. “I wanted it to be a springboard for people to talk about how hard it is to govern and to serve and to meet in the middle.”

During the recent Town Meeting season, Kitchel organized the previews that members of the cast — male and female — performed at their respective hometown gatherings. And she’s been recruiting current and former state and local officials to talk after eight of the nine performances about the play’s lessons for democracy in the 21st century.

The cast also will perform a matinee at the Briggs on April 4 for students from several Upper Valley schools, and will visit Mascoma Valley Regional High School’s new auditorium to perform some scenes and discuss the play’s themes.

“The aim is to inspire people to have that conversation,” Kitchel said. “Out in the entryway, we’ve got a display where we invite the audience to add their signatures to the Declaration. It says, ‘Don’t miss your chance to commit treason.’ ”

Strafford resident Rebecca Bailey passed on her first chance to audition for the play, doubting she had the time. Then the actor who had initially taken the role of New York delegate Robert Livingston dropped out over the winter, and Allison reminded Bailey of the project’s wider mission.

“Looking at the state of our federal democracy, I thought it was a good time to get people thinking and talking about the principles our country was founded on,” Bailey wrote during an exchange of emails this week. “This show reminds us of the value of real debate and of compromise, and it reminds us that we were founded on the principle of a rule of law that no one would be above. This is all especially relevant with a president who seems to feel he’s above the law and a Congress that’s so polarized and won’t compromise.”

The musical opens with Massachusetts delegate John Adams, played by Deering, N.H., resident Taylor Hooper, standing almost alone in advocating for a full, loud break from English rule. Even his allies shake their heads and lament, through song, his lack of people skills.

“John, why don’t you give it up?” Benjamin Franklin, who is portrayed by Norwich resident John Severinghaus, asks in Scene 2. “Nobody listens to you. You’re obnoxious and disliked.”

“I’m not promoting John Adams,” replies the future second president of the yet-unborn United States. “I’m promoting independence.”

“Evidently,” Franklin fires back, “they cannot help connecting the two.”

During the April 7 performance, Arnie Arnesen, the former Orford resident and state representative who ran for governor of New Hampshire in the mid-1990s, expects to weep at that scene and others involving Adams’ clashes with friends and foes alike.

“When they came to me to take part in the post-show discussion, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it,” Arnesen, now a radio talk-show host based in Concord, said on Wednesday. “The man who became my second husband took me to a production at Seacoast Rep on one of our early dates, around the year 2000, and right away I was crying like a baby. He looks at me and, like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And then it dawns on him: ‘You’re John Adams, aren’t you?’ That was exactly it. I was the kind of person, in my political life, where on every issue I was ‘I want it to happen. I want it to happen yesterday.’ … Compromise is so hard. It’s so-freaking-hard.”

Political theater is in the air. If Allison needed any more inspiration to explore the interplay of personality and principles in political discourse, late last summer she saw a production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the hip-hop-inflected musical in which actors of color play most of the roles of key figures in post-Revolutionary America.

“I’d heard a lot of good things, but it was still just stunning,” Allison said. “I haven’t heard a single person who didn’t actually love it. It’s taking an old story and using entertainment to show it in an exciting way.”

Hamilton also reinforced her decision to cast women in men’s roles.

“The play is already very resonant to the world we’re in today for a variety of reasons,” Allison said. “If you have women playing roles in the gender that they were written, people have to think to themselves: ‘Hmm: a woman president.’”

Bailey was one of the friends who encouraged Allison to take a, well, revolutionary approach to casting, even before she agreed to play Livingston, to whom she is related, she learned recently.

“For one thing, it’s hard to get a big cast of all men in community theater in the Upper Valley,” Bailey said. “For another, it’s not a big stretch for a 21st-century woman to play an 18th-century man. Those guys were pretty metrosexual, with their lacy cuffs and fancy wigs.”

Those guys were also wheeler-dealers with special interests to balance against their convictions.

“The show reminds us,” Bailey said, “that racism was baked into our nation’s founding when the delegates struck from Jefferson’s draft the passage condemning England for the slave trade — a total case of the pot calling the kettle black, because most of the delegates were slaveholders.”

Watching her cast wrestle with such issues, using their hearts and voices as well as their minds, Allison said, makes the project worth the time and the energy.

“Many people I know have been very upset by the divisiveness in the country,” Allison said. “I wanted to make this accessible to people no matter what position they take.

“People got it really quickly. They were, like, ‘Yeah: It’s so perfect for this time.”

The production of 1776 opens this weekend at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and on Sunday afternoon at 3. To reserve tickets ($22 to $25, plus service fee) and learn more, visit the1776project.org.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.