nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
October 16, 2008
Jim Simpson down at the Flea really wants us to know that Cato, by Joseph Addison (1672-1719), was the American Founding Fathers' favorite play. There are all sorts of great dramaturgical bits in the program about how many of the most quotable words and ideas of our Revolution were ripped directly out of this play. He is presenting it at election time to highlight these ideas of virtue, liberty, government, patriotism, and loyalty to the state. While I was interested in how the Roman Empire connects to the American Revolution and how that connects further to today, for me Cato plays strongest as a love story.
Cato takes place in 46 B.C. in the city of Utica, where the title character Cato is the last Roman hold out against Julius Caesar. While the play takes place it is understood that Caesar's army is continually approaching nearer. Cato has two advisors, one a compassionate peace-lover (Lucius), one a war-monger (Sempronius) who is also organizing a rebellion against Cato behind his back. Cato has three children, two sons and a daughter. Both sons love Lucius's daughter. Cato's daughter Marcia is being hotly pursued by Juba, a prince from Numidia whose home was sacked and who now reveres Cato as a father figure.
The technical elements of the show are sparse and few. There is a nakedness to the square stage lined with benches and a couple chairs and stools. The majority of the company sits on the benches on the sidelines whenever they are not in a scene. These "offstage" actors participate periodically in rhythmic finger tapping, and foot marching to provide a soundscape for the dialogue. While I loved the idea both stylistically and symbolically, I found my attention often being pulled away from the dense compounds of script verbiage into "stomp, two, three, four, stomp, two, three, four… ah, now one more person is doing it, now another. Are they all in sync or was that a mistake?" The costumes are very simple, almost rehearsal garb, with slightly colonial impressions.
The acting by both the veterans and the young resident Bats is solid, well-spoken, and very earnest throughout. But for all the impressive scoldings, indignant pledges, and other emotional power nuggets, the tenuous interactions between sets of lovers and between fathers and children are by far the most engaging. At one point Juba (Eric Lockley) overhears Marcia (Carly Zien) professing her love and he thinks it's for someone else. Then he realizes it's himself she loves, and then she realizes he heard her. This scene is performed just perfectly by Zien and Lockley. During it, the energy of the audience surged from attentive to completely hooked. We were laughing nervously, cringing, gasping... it was total magic.
Speaking of magic, I would be remiss not to mention how compelling André De Shields is as Cato. Cato is a truly exaggerated pillar of virtue, honor, strength, and loyalty to his state—not an easy task for an actor when your character is essentially symbolic. Yet somehow De Shields manages to radiate that unreal greatness in every breath he takes, in his slightest gestures, in each step. His Cato is both believable and riveting, and this performance allows the story around him to work. I got the feeling that just as the character of Cato is inspiring and enthralling to the other characters in the play, De Shields's performance is an equally strong presence among the other actors on stage. In fact I found myself sometimes watching the "offstage" actors watching De Shields. This seemed beautifully appropriate and similar to my own experience of seeing this fine actor play this fine man.
This left me wondering about how Cato was loved. Do we support our leaders' politics because we fall in love with their charismatic selves? Or is it the ideas we connect to that make men into heroes? I also wondered how much of the popularity of this play in its time was driven by the humanity of the love scenes. How much of it was about how Addison used an antique hero to justify the contemporary rhetoric of a world cruising out of imperialism into something new and uncertain? Can you serve up political ideals in theatre without an emotional hook like love? The love sure makes all the difference in Cato down at the Flea.