A lively evening with Ulysses S. Grant by the Mabou Mines troupe; Cold Harbor Conceived and directed by Bill Raymond and Dale Worsley for Mabou Mines.
You never know what the Mabou Mines group will come up with next. Recent shows have included a private-eye yarn, a Samuel Beckett monologue, and a guided tour through the perils of nuclear power.
And now, of all things, an evening with Ulysses S. Grant. It's called ''Cold Harbor'' and comes complete with Civil War photographs, tableaux vivantsm, and recitations from the memoirs of our hero and his wife.
In short, a historical excursion with all the trappings. Not what you'd expect from this most forward-looking troupe. But a remarkably entertaining event, designed and executed with the mixed-media flourishes that have become a Mabou Mines hallmark. It's running at the company's usual home, the Public Theater.
The play begins with two museum workers putting together a presentation of Grant memorabilia. As they arrange and argue over their exhibits, Grant himself (played by Bill Raymond) comes to grisly life in a glass display case. Soon he's striding brusquely around the stage and haranguing us with boundless energy.
His manner is gruff, aggressive, and sometimes tipsy, which seems about right for one of the most-respected generals and least-respected presidents in American history. His themes are all too human, which also seems right, though it's a ghost we're listening to. Justification, rationalization, binges of sentiment and pride - especially in his famous tomb - and yowls of ''it wasn't my fault!'' are his constant tunes.
He's an insufferable old duck, as portrayed by Raymond, and yet it's impossible not to like him, or at least want to humor him. Harder to sympathize with is his wife, represented by a disembodied voice and a tiny doll, with her cloying nostalgia for the ''good old days'' of antebellum slavery, when people knew their places and didn't rock boats.
All this is accompanied by a striking visual counterpoint, including poignant photos of wartime suffering and arch but elegant ''living statues'' in a niche at the rear of the stage. And those curators keep up their own show-within-the-show, with remarks and gestures that make a pointed commentary on contemporary attitudes toward the past and its shaky position in the collective American memory.
Credit for the show's success goes largely to Dale Worsley and Raymond, who concocted it. Nods are also due to Greg Mehrten for the costumes and tableaux, B-St. John Schofield for the ingenious lighting design, and Philip Glass for the pulsing incidental music. Mehrten and Schofield also give first-rate performances as the museum men, etching full characterizations with deftly economical strokes. It runs through April 3.