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“The Killer Angels: Soldiers of Gettysburg” at The Maverick

Updated: May 18, 2023

“The Killer Angels: Revisiting a past that feels closer than ever

By Joel Beers

Those familiar with the Maverick Theater in Fullerton can probably attest to how founder Brian Newell’s “staged cinema” producing aesthetic, which combines the dialogue-centric, live performance of theater with the visual and auditory vocabulary of film, often results in plays that seem bigger than the company’s physical space.

But is it possible that the show that most defines an 21-year-old theater that has hosted King Kong and Santa Claus duking it out with Martians is one where less is actually more?

That’s what Newell has heard often since his adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel, “The Killer Angels,” premiered at the Maverick in 2017.

“This is the one show that. more than any other, that I hear people mention as our signature show,” Newell said. “I always appreciate hearing that but I kind of do a double take because compared to nearly every other show we’ve done, this is so minimal.”

From Left: Steve Biggs, Mark Coyan, Frank Tryon, Jaycob Hunter, Chris Jones

Wait a minute: how can a play based on a novel set during the bloodiest three days in U.S. History, the Battle of Gettysburg, where an estimated 50,000 Americans were killed or wounded, be minimal? The carnage alone was epic. Then consider the stakes at play: a Confederate Army victory on Union soil could have meant a swift end to the conflict; instead, the Union victory halted the Southern offensive and turned the tide of the war. It also paved the way six months later for President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he broadened the war’s objective from preserving the union to abolishing slavery for good. (Although his 274-word speech didn’t explicitly state that…)

But as huge as the battle, and its impact, were, Shaara’s novel, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1975, is far more intimate. It is told not through depicting battle scenes but through the words and perspectives of the people who fought it. He spent 10 years poring over diaries and other written records of the men on the ground; by using their words and telling the story through their perspectives, this story of Gettysburg is less a grand narrative of great armies clashing in a great struggle than one rooted in the flesh and blood, and doubts and fears, of real people.

That’s what grabbed Newell when he first read the book, which he purchased at a gift shop on the Pennsylvania battle site during a 2015 visit.

“I remember thinking almost immediately how this would make for a great play because it’s mostly all dialogue and character-driven,” he said.

But he also realized that to make his adaptation faithful to the source material, to tell the story as the novel did, then the audience had to focus on that language and the characters.

From Left: Richard Comeau, Frank Tryon, Mark Coyan, Chris Jones

And that’s where Newell took a turn to the minimal. He decided to mount the play on a mostly bare stage free of set pieces and scenery and, like a novel, where the reader has to use their imagination to “see” the story, have his audience use its imagination to “fill out what was happening around the characters.”

That’s not to imply that this production doesn’t retain that staged cinema feeling. There is an extensive sound design with underscoring, as well as lighting techniques like isolating certain parts of the stage rather than traditional theater lighting that tends to flow from scene to scene. And while there are no visual set pieces or dressing, there is definitely some eye candy: the costumes and prop weapons are totally legit.

“The costumes were purchased from a company that mounts Civil War reenactments,” Newell said. “So they're as authentic as possible and I studied how they distress uniforms in films, so the characters look like they’ve just walked off the battlefield. It’s like you’re on an actual motion picture set.”

Just as Newell believes this is as faithful a theatrical adaptation as possible to the novel, this production is nearly identical to its 2017 initial run. All but one actor plays the same role from that production, and Newell again consciously resisted the temptation to overdo stage combat.

Like the novel, which doesn’t depict the battle scenes through action but more like Shakespeare did in his history plays, through what characters say before and after the fighting, there’s only one physical skirmish in “Killer Angels.”

It’s the battle of Little Round Top on the second day, in which Lt. Joshua Chamberlain, a civilian schoolteacher before the war, and his men, fend off six Confederate charges. Finally, his beleaguered men exhausted, outnumbered, and nearly out of ammunition, he orders a bayonet charge that routs the Southern forces.

It’s the one time in the play that individual stories are subordinated to the larger story of the American Civil War, a story that would not exist if it weren’t for each of those smaller tales, but one that is greater, in terms of its destructive, uncontrollable destruction. than the sum of its parts.

From Left: Brian Kojac, Brock Joseph

That war was caused in no small part by long-simmering conflicts sectional in nature that, left unresolved, sparked an inferno that nearly consumed America. Five years ago, as the cast and crew of “Killer Angels” was nearing the end of rehearsal for a show set to open Sept. 1, it was impossible to not at least consider the possibility that America was heading toward another terminal breakdown in civility. On August 12, a gathering of groups united in opposition to the removal of the statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate monuments held the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

At the time, Newell told an OC Weekly reporter that he hoped those who saw “Killer Angels” would “walk away realizing that the Civil War is an incredible reminder of how frail our system was in a still young country and how it fractured so simply. And to not take that (system) for granted.”

Cue the social justice protests of 2020, anti-vax rallies, QAnon, the assault on the U.S Capitol and on and on and on.

Five years later, the lines between us and them and them and us, whoever they all are, seem less like dividers than yawning chasms. And does anyone even remember what we weren’t supposed to take for granted in the first place?

Joel Beers is a freelance journalist based in Orange County.. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“The Killer Angels: Soldiers of Gettysburg”

Maverick Theater

110 E. Walnut Ave. Unit B, Fullerton, CA 92832

May 12-July 3, 2023

(714) 526-7070,

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