"Praise the Union, Praise God," sings the Rev. Samuel Harper in Trustus Theatre's stage adaptation of The Restoration's 2010 album Constance.
The fictional 19th century Lexington County minister, played with intensity by Paul Kaufmann, is letting his true feelings surface as the Union Army marches toward Columbia: that the Union is doing God's work by bringing an end to slavery. The fact that this line was sung just a parking lot away from a former Confederate printing plant — and that it was enthusiastically received by a sold-out crowd — only made it that much more electric.
Harper has been told what to preach — and what not to. Instead of towing the line, however, he passionately tells his congregation, "His Law is Love" — and he hopes they will absorb what that means.
They don't, of course — and therein lies the driving narrative of Constance. Life is hard in 19th century South Carolina for people like Harper, and for the titular Constance, who marries a man of murkily defined "mixed blood." And things don't get much better as the decades go by.
The transformation of Constance the album into Constance the stage production is both simple and powerful. Music, not theater, plays the dominant role in the production, which played just twice at Trustus, Aug. 21 and Aug. 23. Members of The Restoration are seated at the right side of the stage. In the center is a choir. As the narrative moves along, characters approach microphones in front of the choir to deliver lines and sing. Vocal parts from the album have been divvied up among the actors playing the various characters; the band does not sing during the production.
Though the acting and dialogue in Constance are minimal, the drama is not — the songs provide plenty of it. For anyone who's suffered through one too many musicals, know this: Constance is full of grit and passion, not filler and fluff. It's an ambitious, homegrown rock opera — not a wannabe Broadway show.
By bringing Constance to the stage, Trustus has scored on a number of levels. First, it has exposed an extraordinarily talented and ambitious local band to a wider audience. Second, it has transformed an album that was already well regarded among local music fans into a viable stage production. Third, it has shown the power of a cross-disciplinary collaboration done right.
Last, but certainly not least, it has shown that Trustus can deliver on its newfound commitment to developing new works from the ground up — and that it can get an audience to show up for such an endeavor.
Full disclosure: Cook served on a talk-back panel after the Aug. 23 staging of Constance.
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