It's a show where people pretend to be people pretending to be people, and one of them pretends to be Paul O'Shaughnessy of the Historical Society. When the REAL Paul O'Shaughnessy joined the New York City audience to watch last month, things got truly odd. And quite wonderful.
O'Shaughnessy, now enriching his sixth decade of Lexington's portrayal of the past, was one of many reenactors interviewed for "How To Load A Musket," an original play by actress and playwright Talene Monahon that ran for two weeks in January at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. After interviewing reenactors for five years, the Belmont native took her script through workshops at the Cape Cod Theatre Project and Northern Stage in White River Junction.
She and her Lexingtonian best friend "used to attend the Battle of Lexington together and I loved exploring her home and pretending to act out the story of the wounded Redcoat who was taken in by colonists during the war," Monahon wrote in an email. "Later, as an adult and theater-maker, the initial impulse was to explore a world which felt adjacent to my own and seemed to be a uniquely fascinating lens through which to look at the country in the present."
It's an unusual show, and totally compelling if you're into geeking out on history, especially the Lexingtonian variety. It goes in unexpected directions, but it's not too surprising that O'Shaughnessy would find his way into it. He's an absolute stalwart of preserving Lexington's past by playing it out.
But not as a colonist. Cheerful and erudite, O'Shaughnessy wields a musket and bayonet as a leader of the His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot in America, the top-notch British reenactment company formed in 1968 in anticipation of the Bicentennial. He brandishes a soft-spoken wit and a knowledge of history as least as formidable as his equipment, and he's a trooper in the truest sense. He shows up for everything, as willing to play auctioneer as Grenadier if called upon by the Historical Society.
O'Shaughnessy relishes telling how he first was drawn into reenacting as a teenager in 1972, hanging around the Green as teens are wont to do, and semi-interested in the Lexington Minute Men and their drill. When he saw the precision and splendid accoutrement of the 10th, his perspective and his loyalties shifted, and he's since devoted his talent, time and energy to exploring and exposing the value of the British point of view. His core rationale for 50 years of wearing a red coat is so resonant, it makes it right into the script and onto the stage: "Somebody's got to play the British." And sure enough, during the performance that very line got an appreciative chuckle.
It comes at the very beginning, as the audience is just moving into the words and thoughts of these thoughtful, obsessed, meticulous odd ducks, whose actual words from Monahon's interviews form virtually the entirety of the script.
They describe their craft and its impact on its impact on their lives. They talk about the unexpected ways the modern world affects their vocation (the racial clash in Charlottesville that rocked the nation as Monahon was researching her show serves as a disturbing pivot point). They grapple with the question, "Am I laughable?" and decide they are not.
And they poignantly express yearning felt in one form or another by most historical society affiliates, to return to a past world that feels more comprehensible and worth inhabiting because we know how the story ends.
O'Shaughnessy says Monahon wrote in the play's turning point, the modern intrusion of racial ugliness, because she had to, and did a good job balancing the laughs inherent in a deeply eccentric pastime and respect for the passion and sense of higher calling it entails. "She was reasonably fair about that. She portrayed the oddities where they were oddities, and rationality where there was rationality and she included a little bit of magic."
O'Shaughnessy good-naturedly allowed how he'd have loved to have all three hours of his interview worked into the script, but understands well why his character (played by Ryan Spahn) really only has a few pure O'Shaughnessy lines - and a terrific story about losing one's sense of fiction and swinging a real sword at reenactors attempting to seize a cannon. O'Shaughnessy is a techie at the Footlight Players in Jamaica Plain, and knows well the constraints and vagaries of scriptwriting and the stage.
But not what it's like to be trodding the boards in the third person. "I was very interested to hear my words spoken to me from the stage, by someone's else's voice. It was a bit fascinating, and, I was measuring the distance between what I said and how I said it, and how he said it."
O'Shaughnessy said both actor and playwright got him right, and he delighted in meeting Spahn after the performance. The actor clearly enjoyed the odd encounter too. "I think it closed a loop for both of us," O'Shaughnessy said. "I told him that he played me better than I do."
What's next for the show? Monahon just learned it's going to have another run in NYC, and she's interested in connecting with still more reenactors. And it's not implausible that the show could be staged in Lexington (watch this space….)
-Guest Contributor Craig Sandler, Managing Partner, State House News Service
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.