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David Ellenstein talks about history and humor in BEN BUTLER

Humor can be found in even the most serious of events, and BEN BUTLER , now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 21st finds the humanity and comedy during a pivotal moment of the Civil War. Director David Ellenstein talks about how bringing BEN BUTLER to the North Coast Rep stage has been the work of years and how this year may be even more relevant than when he first tried to acquire the rights.

When David Ellenstein originally applied to get the rights to produce BEN BUTLER in 2015 but in the end, it took more than six years to get the permissions to get this show on stage. It’s a show that is both funny and thought-provoking, which turned out to be a combination he couldn’t resist.

Photo Credit: Ben Butler - (LtoR) Brian Mackey, Richard Baird & Brandon J. Pierce - photo by Aaron Rumley, North Coast Repertory Theatre
Photo Credit: Ben Butler – (LtoR) Brian Mackey, Richard Baird & Brandon J. Pierce – photo by Aaron Rumley, North Coast Repertory Theatre

Ben Butler is set around the true events in 1861 when a runaway slave arrived at the Union Army Fort Monroe, VA seeking sanctuary during the Civil War. The decision that day had ripple effects that eventually reached President Lincoln and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. While that may seem to some an unusual thing to find comedy Ellenstein says the unique mix of history, comedy, and the change in perspectives over the last few years may make the play even more relevant now than before.

“When the play was written Obama was President. A huge milestone that actually reverberates in the message of the play. Producing it in a post-Trump and post George Floyd world is a different lens through which to view the events. The historical accuracy of the events depicted is the same, but the audience’s perspective is different. Perhaps the timing for the play is even more relevant now than it was then. It is such a dramaturgically sound play – I think it works in any environment or time.”

Finding performers who can both be grounded in history, while performing larger-than-life characters, with witty dialogue is no easy task. Ellenstein says that the top-notch cast of Richard Baird, Brian Mackey, Brandon J. Pierce, and Bruce Turk bring the show beautifully to life.

As a director, there is nothing better than having a sound play with well cast and extremely talented performers. The Director’s job becomes much simpler. There is no need to point out rudimentary or basic skill issues, but to set the tone, and make sure each of them remains on the top of their game. Each of these four actors possessed the necessary linguistic skill to make the language sing, without it feeling artificial or arch. Such a pleasure to be able to work this way.”

While Ellenstein worked to get the rights to the show well before the events of the last few years, he says that the show highlights how timeless the topics that are being confronted today really are, and why it’s important to keep working on them.

“I hope they learn about the important historical moment depicted (I certainly didn’t know anything about it) and about the real characters that affected our history. I hope they are entertained, enlightened and filled with the idea of how far we have come and talking about how much farther we have to go. “

In fact, Ellenstein says that theatres can play a crucial part of community building and conversation with the shows they choose to present to their audiences.

“When theatre is good… it is uplifting, community building and right now. If our world ever needed people to come together and experience live art – it is now.”

How to get tickets

BEN BUTLER is playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 21st. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. For ticket information go to

North Coast Repertory Theatre requires poof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of performance date and masks are mandatory for the entire time inside the theatre.

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