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THEATER: Ventura County

Troupes in Battle

A Civil War drama and reenactment of Shiloh clash are set for Civic Arts Plaza.

March 12, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unrelenting gunfire will shatter the peace of Thousand Oaks this weekend. A stone's throw from the Civic Arts Plaza, the ground will be littered with the dead.

It's not gang warfare. A Civil War drama, "Shiloh," opens Friday at the plaza's Forum Theatre. As an added attraction, at least 125 Civil War enthusiasts will set up camp on a two-acre vacant lot next to the theater and re-create the famous Battle of Shiloh on Saturday and Sunday.

The authentically outfitted soldiers will clash much like they did in Tennessee in 1862, when two days of battle resulted in 24,000 casualties among Union and Confederate fighters, making it clear the war wouldn't be a quick one.

Though staged, it will be as loud as the real thing. Blasts from horse-drawn cannons will boom--minus the cannonballs--and a pyrotechnic engineer will simulate ground charges that will blow up small stacks of peat moss and hay.

"The earth flies in the air--it will look like a bomb hit it," said Paul DeNubilo, a member of the Richmond Howitzers, one of a dozen or so Civil War reenactment groups that will stage the battle.

Meanwhile, actors from the Santa Susana Repertory Company and students from Cal Lutheran University will re-create the battle inside on stage, in a musical adaptation of historian Shelby Foote's book "Shiloh."

The reenactment will run only this weekend. On Saturday, the battle will begin at noon with the staging of re-creations of the actual first day of fighting, followed by the second day's clash at 2:30 p.m. On Sunday, the battles will be at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

But the battles are only part of the scene. The reenactment groups set up camp much as soldiers would have during the war, with canvas tents and potato soup simmering over open fires. Dressed in meticulously authentic Civil War clothing, they stay in character as they clean their weapons and talk of the hardships of war.

In contrast to the action-packed battle reenactments, the stage production will be more a behind-the-scenes look at the war through the eyes of a handful of soldiers on both sides.

This adaptation of Foote's 1952 novel has never been staged before. It might not have happened at all if Lane Davies, artistic director of the Santa Susana Repertory Company, hadn't picked up a copy of Foote's "Shiloh" before he boarded a plane for a series of concerts in Siberia.

"I read the novel on the plane and thought, this cries out to be a theater piece," he said. "It leaped off the pages. Foote's work is so wonderful. He can put you inside the minds of the soldiers."

Davies asked playwright-actor and Americana enthusiast John Slade to adapt it for the stage. "A year later, we had a war on our hands," he joked.

In his adaptation, Slade added an element. He set the play at a reunion of soldiers, from both North and South, 20 years after the Civil War. As they reminisce about the horror of it, the action occurs in flashbacks.

He also added Civil War-era music, such as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Rally Round the Flag," as well as his own compositions. But he has carefully retained not only the flavor of the book, but actual passages. Most important, the work has received an enthusiastic blessing from Foote.

"He was interested in the history, and I was interested more in the character conversations," said Slade, whose other historical dramatizations include "Quilters" and "Crockett, by Himself." In the play, the battle scenes are stylized, and key historical characters, such as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, are shadowy, background figures. The soldiers are the leads, especially a soldier-turned-preacher, played by actor Andrew Prine.

The battle forever dashed dignified, romantic notions of war, said Slade, who also directs the play. "It changed the way war is done."

Shortly before the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Grant's Union troops had taken the Confederate forts Henry and Donelson and were marching south, headed for Corinth, Miss., and a crucial railroad junction. The night of April 5 they set up camp at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

The next morning, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston led a surprise attack on the Union forces. The battle was long--13 hours--and bloody. Casualties mounted--and among them was Johnston.

The troops, about 80,000 between the two sides, spent a miserable night in the rain regrouping. The next day, the Union troops, with reinforcements, led a surprise attack on the Confederates.

On the battlefield, the dead lay everywhere, bodies mangled--all in the shadow of little Shiloh Chapel. Shiloh, ironically, means peace. There were strategic blunders on both sides and nearly equal casualties, yet each side claimed victory.

"What was it for? What did it gain?" Slade said, citing the horrific cost in lives. For Grant, it was a grim realization, he said. "Grant saw at the end of the battle that this was not going to be a piece of cake."

BE THERE

"Shiloh," a stage adaptation of Shelby Foote's Civil War novel, opens at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., on Friday and runs for three weekends through March 29. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $21-$25. For information, call 493-3415 or 449-ARTS.

Reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh will be presented Saturday and Sunday next to the Civic Arts Plaza, where an encampment will be set up. The encampment will be open for visitors Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to the site and to view the battles is $6, or for children under 12, $4. For information, 493-3415.

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