Saturday, January 31, 2009

Caesar and Cleopatra / 23 Knives (Resonance Ensemble)

By Le-Anne
• fun historical fiction • Julius Caesar is inspiration for both shows • performing in repertory on alternating nights

BOTTOM LINE: If you enjoy historical fiction, you’ll enjoy these two plays. Either show is worth seeing on its own or you can check them out together.

Few political leaders in history are as well known or as widely romanticized as Julius Caesar. Indisputably among the most powerful men to have ever lived, he was a God according to some and a tyrant according to others. It is written that he was a benevolent yet fierce military leader, not one to raise his voice nor was he one to loose a battle. It is debatable whether it was his life or his death that is most significant to contributing to the world as we know it today. It is most interesting then that the Resonance Ensemble should choose to produce two plays that explore just that: Caesar’s death, with 23 Knives by Christopher Boal, and his life, with Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (adapted by Eric Overmyer). According to the Resonance Ensemble, it is only fitting that in these politically heated times, Caesar should be the inspiration for their repertory package.

23 Knives is a contemporary play by Christopher Boal that fictionalizes an historical account taken from one line of Seutonius’s “The Twelve Caesars,” (a collection of biographies, written in AD 121, beginning with the life of Caesar and then chronicling the next 11 succeeding emperors of Rome). Seutonius writes, “And of so many wounds none turned out to be mortal, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, except the second one in the breast.” It is from this single line that Boal creates his historical fiction. The central character is Antistius, a Greek physician, or rather a Greek physician’s assistant posing as a physician in Rome, who is asked by Marcus Antonius to perform the Greek practice of autopsy on the great Caesar. In a creative twist, Boal’s tale alludes to a surprising assassin. Ryan Tramont, as Marcus Antonius, is a convincing soldier, torn between duty and conscience. Patrick Melville, as Antistius, lends a lighthearted, modern “TV era” feel to this Greek tale, immediately clueing the audience that this is a contemporary telling of classical times. Standouts include Todd Alan Crain as Janus, (Antistius’ slave), with his risky comedic interpretation a-la-Jack-McFarland. Especially engaging is Brian D. Coats as Musa, (Marcus Antonius’ slave). Incredibly creepy, he simultaneously teases and seduces the audience thereby creating the perfect liar. Coats expertly leaves one wondering whether Musa is a good guy who is bad or a bad guy who is good. Director Eric Parness successfully maneuvers the modern conversational dialogue, mixed with philosophical ideas, and classical high-stakes presented in 23 Knives.

Caesar and Cleopatra is a wonderful juxtaposition to it’s partner in repertory. Shaw’s modern-day classic is just over one hundred years old but it is still entirely accessible for a modern audience. Overmyer alters few words of the original text which proves how timeless Shaw’s words remain; he mostly makes clever edits to the original, omitting larger chunks of text to help this newer version flow more smoothly and quickly to appease a modern attention span. Where Overmyer does pen in his voice, it is really more of a device to make longer passages more concise than it is to attempt any sort of “modernization” of vocabulary. Overmyer cleverly matches Shaw’s language, making the edits rather seamless.

Shaw’s story stresses the political manipulations of his title characters rather than the idea of love drawing the two together. With Cleopatra at age 16 and Caesar at age 50, this idea is more plausible than its popular counterpart. It is not to say that the two don’t love each other, they clearly do, but it is more of a mutual passion for each others’ love of power than a romantic notion. Actors Chris Ceraso and Wrenn Schmidt, playing Caesar and Cleopatra, demonstrate their passions in a fantastic foil to one another. Ceraso, with an uncanny resemblance to the Roman leader, is a wise and collected Caesar. He is cool and self-assured with no hints of egotism as he commands with silence. Silence is not among the young Cleopatra’s virtues. Schmidt is most charming in her portrayal of the sophomoric royal. She dances like a champion between childish reactions and a girl on the verge of becoming a woman of greatness. Like the legends say of the woman she portrays, Schmidt is captivating. Both Ceraso and Schmidt demonstrate a keen understanding for Shaw’s wit, providing several laugh-out-load moments. The two share a beautiful chemistry on stage. Rounding out the cast are strong supporting performances by Rafael Jordan as Apollodorus, Geraldine Librandi as Ftatateeta, Joe MacDougall as Rufio, and Brad Makarowski as Britannus. Director Kent Paul’s attention to detail with character development and relationships is apparent, as every character at any given moment wears a story on their face.

Resonance Ensemble has cleverly selected two shows to work together that are relevant today. 23 Knives begs the question: Just because something can be proven with science, does it make it true? While one of Shaw’s resounding themes in Caesar and Cleopatra asks: Just because we have made advancements in civilization (with science, for example) are we really any better off than we were hundreds of years ago? 23 Knives and Caesar and Cleopatra compliment each other well and, with reasonable ticket prices, it is highly recommended to see both productions.

(Performances run now through Feb. 7 (C&C - Sun. 2/1, Tues. 2/3, Thu. 2/5, & Sat. 2/7 at 8pm, Sat. 1/31 at 2pm. 23 Knives - Sat. 1/31, Wed. 2/4, & Fri. 2/6 at 8pm, Sun. 2/1 & Sat. 2/7 at 2pm) at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St., btwn 9th & 10 Ave). C&C runs 2 hours 30 min. with one 10 min. intermission. 23 Knives runs 2 hours with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased through Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or at

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