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A new play visits the true history of women who donned uniforms to fight in the Civil War

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 3, 2016

When she moved to Alaska four years ago, Colleen Metzger looked forward to joining a local Civil War re-enactment group. The Midwesterner had been part of the living history movement since childhood, when she had the part of a prairie girl at a local museum. It's one of the reasons she learned to sew at age 4.

Re-creating Civil War battles became her passion. "Being in it, experiencing what people were doing," she said. "You get to dress up in the uniforms and camp out with your best buddies and play with guns. It's really cool!"

Civil War buffs who pay meticulous attention to the historical accuracy of the details of their costumes and equipment and get together to relive the War Between the States can be found in every state -- including Alaska. The northernmost is the 4th United States Infantry Co., E, aka "The White Mountain Boys," headquartered in Fairbanks. But there appear to be none active in the Anchorage area.

"I was so disappointed," Metzger said.

This month, however, she's been able to get back in the groove as the costume designer for a new play at Cyrano's. "Good Men Wanted" follows the fortunes of five women who disguise their sex and don uniforms to fight with the soldiers.

It requires a set of uniforms and period civilian clothing for the full cast. Metzger has made sure they're as authentic as possible.

Page to stage

"Good Men Wanted" is based on several true accounts, according to Carrie Yanagawa, who is directing the play for TossPot Productions.

Playwright Kevin Armento was working on a different play when he stumbled across stories of women who passed as men in order to join the Union and Confederate armies, Yanagawa said. "He said, 'How come I didn't know about this?' And he started digging around, finding these real stories of real people. The play's sort of a happy accident."

Armento was at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez when he saw TossPot's production of "A Gulag Mouse." "He sent us this play and asked if we'd be willing to develop it from page to stage," said TossPot's founder, Arlitia Jones. "We knew right away it was going to be Carrie's play."

"I opened the first page and was hooked right away," Yanagawa said. "I read it three times in a row."

Yanagawa makes her debut as a director of full-length plays with this piece. She's previously performed and directed short works and readings. But she's best known as a set designer, having done notable work with Cyrano's and Anchorage Opera as well as creating the grim prison camp set of "A Gulag Mouse" in 2013.

The play has several challenges, she said. "It moves very fast. It has a lot of scenes. Some are just a page and a half long. And you jump all over the place, from a plantation house to a cabin to New York."

Multiple scene changes are a staple in the movies, but they can be a drag on live theater. Cyrano's 2009 production of "The Ballad of Soapy Smith," an excellent historical play in script form, turned into a nearly three-hour grind as actors spent more time rearranging the set than they did acting.

Yanagawa is approaching the hurdle by using a single atmospheric set with a tent on one side and period recruitment posters on the back wall. Yankee and Rebel flags are superimposed on the floor. The rest of the scene is set by positioning ammo and gun boxes to suggest riverboats, trains, buildings and street scenes.

Given Yanagawa's background as a set designer, it's ironic that she's taking a simple approach to the sprawling topic of the Civil War. That's due in part to Metzger's contribution, she said. "Because of her fantastic job on the costumes, I can subdue the scenery a lot."

Not choosing sides

The impressionistic set reflects Armento's script, which mixes narrative and dialogue, with six modern movement pieces involving complex stage choreography. The fight scenes are being directed by Frank Delaney.

"It's a very complicated play," Yanagawa said. "All of the technical changes are daunting, but coming from the backstage part of theater, I felt really prepared to do this. You get a little scared, but what's cool about TossPot is how we have each other's backs."

The play is not about the political and economic causes of the war as much as it is about society and class, Yanagawa said. "Kevin doesn't take either side. But he does use jokes to show how far we've come … and haven't come."

The issue of slavery was settled with the 13th Amendment, but "Good Men Wanted" delves into issues the playwright found current in 1865 and in the news today. Transgender identity, for instance, or women in combat, or pay equality.

We tend to view history through a wide-angle lens, noting the immense issues and mass movements of a large community. "But it's really about individual people," said Yanagawa. "This play's a tale of people."

Making the tale practical for a live staging has required a bunch of work from the playwright, she said. Armento did at least three rewrites for TossPot in the course of making the play come to life.

"Doing it as a reading is super easy," Yanagawa said. "But when you're onstage and have six layers of lady clothes to change out of, it takes time."

Boot camp

A hallmark of TossPot's productions has been their physicality. To prepare for "A Gulag Mouse," Jones had actors haul heavy boxes of meat up and down stairs in a cooler to get an idea of what it would be like do forced labor in Siberia.

For "Good Men Wanted," what the performers call the "TossPot Boot Camp" included an improvisational event where the male cast members and directors sat at a table and ordered the female actors to fetch whiskey and sweep the floor.

"We were yelling at the women," Yanagawa said. "Commenting on their looks. Basically enraging them. They played along for a time, but they finally huddled up and walked out of the room. I was afraid for a minute that I'd lost my cast. But the idea was to break them down, then put guns in their hands. It mirrors the journey they take in the play."

Jones also sent the women to a shooting range.

"I figured, if we're going to have guns, we need to know how they work," she said, "how heavy they are, how you aim them, what the kick feels like."

"Two or three of the girls got bull's-eyes," Yanagawa said with a note of pride.

At the range, they used modern rifles, but while there they met a man experienced in black powder guns similar to the style they'll be using onstage.

"The guns are like the ninth character in the play," Yanagawa said. "We had to be careful with them. They're 4½ feet long and the ceiling at Cyrano's is only 11 feet high."

The guns used by most Civil War soldiers were heavy and cumbersome. They required the shooter to rip open a cartridge, usually with his (or her) teeth, Yanagawa noted. "You had to pour the powder in, prime the gun, use the ramrod, hope it would fire."

The best could get off three rounds in one minute, Metzger noted. But a lot of stuff was bulky by our standards, including the clothes. Especially the women's clothes with hoops, petticoats, corsets and layers of garmentry before you got to whatever was actually visible.

Men wore vests and coats, even when indoors. "It wasn't a matter of them being cold," Metzger said. "It was more a matter of presenting yourself properly."

Yanagawa said she was happy to meet someone in Anchorage who knew about what was proper for the Civil War era. "The first time we met, I felt like I was talking to myself," she said.

On a recent vacation, Metzger went to the gift shop at Fort Sumter and purchased reproduction belt buckles for the production. She stopped by her parents' house and picked up the duffel bag full of her own Civil War gear, the same outfit she's used in re-enactments under the blazing sun of a Lower 48 summer.

It can be hot to wear so much clothing in the spotlights of theater, Yanagawa admitted. "But when anyone complains, I tell them to get over it. Look at Colleen, I say. She did it in 90 degrees."

GOOD MEN WANTED will be presented at Cyrano's at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 20. Tickets are available at centertix.net.

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