How to Load a Musket is a compact pistol of a play. Smart, funny and packed with a terrific troop of actors doing double and triple duty or more, the show at 59E59 Theaters trains its scope on American war re-enactors and ends up being a timely and thought-stirring look at patriotism, what the “idea of America” means, racial divides, how history should be preserved, and who gets to tell it. It’s impressive for a production with a budget that’s likely the size of a musket ball. The script by Talene Monahan, an actress and writer, is pulled verbatim from Q&As with an array of these niche hobbyists who’ve all caught “the bug” for recreating bloody chapters of the Revolutionary War and Civil War and beyond. She taped her interviews between 2015 and 2019, a period packed with big changes.
Facts fly fast and furiously in this roughly 80-minute work. Some re-enactors simply seek escape, we learn, while others are out to honor ancestors. Some authenticity diehards rival Joaquin Phoenix’s dramatic weight loss for Joker. Try eating rancid bacon before a battle recreation, sir. And in case you wondered, an M16 is technically a musket, a re-enactor declares. Director Jaki Bradley’s scrappy staging mines humor to the max as the show unfolds against a simple but evocative backdrop decked with Americana. As the interview timeline proceeds, the story deepens from primer to something more prickly and provocative. Even with a few shaky lighting effects and a last-minute replacement (Monahan had to step in to play herself on Jan. 12), the play, presented by Less Than Rent Theatre, aims, fires and hits the mark – your brain.