Culver Director of Theatre Richard Coven should be forgiven if he’s just a bit nervous as the school’s fall production, Hamilton: An American Tragedy, hits the Eppley Auditorium stage at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5, and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 11 and 12. The play, after all, is not the current Broadway iteration of the Alexander Hamilton story, but is based on Coven’s own script.
The story – which moves back in forth from Hamilton’s childhood, through various moments in his adult life, and even after his death – is no simple matter to stage. There are elaborate costumes and the challenge of creating a variety of historic backdrops. This year, Coven said, some of that work will be accomplished via projection and other tech-based illusions, rather than entirely relying on physical set pieces.
Plus, Coven is playing a major role in the play: President George Washington. It is just his fourth time acting in a Culver play over Coven’s nearly two decades in the Fine Arts department. Hamilton is his second original play to be performed by Culver students. The first, Travelers, was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland last year.
Coven considers the popularity of the current Broadway production about Hamilton as beneficial in raising the awareness level on the founding father. However, he intentionally avoided viewing or reading about the musical while preparing for the Culver production.
Coven began writing his play in 1989. A history major in college, he was inspired after seeing 1942 Culver graduate Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. Coven concluded that “theater can deal with history at a much more realistic level than history teachers are able to present…live human beings seemed to me to be the ideal way to teach history.”
At the time, one of Coven’s professors was writing a book on Hamilton; he shared that Hamilton’s widow made the first donation to the Library of Congress when she gave his papers to the institution. Also, Hamilton was reading Plutarch’s “Lives” during the Revolutionary War, and his “doodles” in the margins of the book “humanized” the young Hamilton for Coven.
For Coven, it is that point which is one of the great threads running through Hamilton’s story. The way theater – then the primary mode of mass entertainment and dramatized social commentary — impacted the Founding Fathers. Coven added the play “Cato” had a big impact on them. Some of their best-known quotes (including Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.”) were inspired by the play.
Hamilton” was first performed in 1995 as part of his master’s thesis. This summer’s rewrite involves 21 performers, including a handful of actresses in male roles (reflecting, Coven notes, “the heavily male world of that time”).
Coven credits his wife, fellow Fine Arts faculty member and Theatre Technical Director Marsha Coven, with fulfilling the difficult task of securing period costumes after a source in Detroit fell through, with some coming from Culver’s own Living History endeavors.
About halfway through rehearsals, the student playing Washington stepped out of the production, with Coven stepping in to fill the void. He calls the first president’s role his favorite in the play, noting Washington himself was “a frustrated actor.”
Alexander Hamilton is played by Charles Mahoney ’18 (Cumming, Ga.). His wife, Elizabeth, is played by Lizz Lenig ’18 (Plymouth, Ind.), and his children are played by Devon Gadzinski ’17 (Manitowoc, Wis.), Lauren Donsbach ’20 (Schereville, Ind.), and Reid Barger. Thomas Maly ’17 (Bourbonnais, Ill.) plays Hamilton’s eventual killer, Aaron Burr.
“It’s been interesting for the actors to play somebody real and have things to research,” Coven said. “And the girls, especially, having to play a guy – they’re doing really well with it. I tell them, ‘Look, we’re all humans. So just be human.’”