‘TIS A WORK OUR FOUNDING FATHERS DID MUCH LIKE
by Harvey Perr
published October 24, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at The Flea
through November 2
There are times in the theater when we admire what we see more than we enjoy it, when we feel that the event must be taken
seriously even if sitting through such an event may be as much a chore as it is a pleasure, and, while I have nothing but respect for Jim
Simpson and The Flea Theater for reviving, “expressly for the Presidential Election Year,” a historical curiosity from 1713, Cato by Joseph Addison (the co-founder, with Richard Steele, of The Tatler) - a play that was George
Washington’s favorite - I am convinced that this is more a great conversation piece than a totally successful evening in the theater.
But the talk that this production will provoke makes the revival essential. The play, which deals with the tragedy of Cato
(battling against all odds the all-powerful Caesar in his attempt to protect the Rome he loves), who commits suicide rather than seeing his
vision of a republic compromised, should reverberate with contemporary audiences who feel they are living in a similarly rotting political
atmosphere. And in its rich language and in its literacy (the play seems less influenced by Shakespeare than by French classical theater),
it should prove thrilling to think that our founding fathers were entranced by such work, providing us with eloquent proof that they were a
more intellectually adventurous group than our television pundits could ever imagine. And we are more than reassured by the highly stylized
and, at the same time, starkly simple direction which Jim Simpson has beautifully endowed the play with. The beating out of the rhythms of
the play’s cadences and, more significantly, the grandeur of its ideas, by the actors, is quietly exciting. And non-traditional casting has
rarely been so astutely realized.
And, even though Andre de Shields, in the title role, relishes the ripeness of the language with a bit too much gusto, he and his
fellow actors – Reg E. Cathey, Carly Zien, Christian Baskous, Anthony Cochrane, in particular – keep us riveted, even as the play itself
keeps drifting away from us. The virtues of Cato, then, far outweigh the difficulty of putting
up with the serious (and sometimes boring) demands it makes on us.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com