23 Knives: Autopsy-Turvy
The mission of Resonance Ensemble is to present classic plays in conjunction with modern plays inspired by them. This season they change things up a bit, by presenting George Bernard Shaw's classic Caesar and Cleopatra along with the premiere of Christopher Boal's 23 Knives; both plays are inspired by Shakespeare's works.
23 Knives is based on the real-life figure of Antistius (Patrick Melville), whose only surviving record in history is of having been the man to perform the autopsy of Julius Caesar after he was assassinated, and who presented his findings as testimony in front of the Roman forum (from which comes our term "forensics").
Boals spins an amusingly modern take on the piece- at times it feels much like an episode of CSI:Ancient Rome. In his version of events, Marcus Antonius (Ryan Tramont) has chosen Antistius for the job of discovering which of the many stab wounds actually killed Caesar, because Antistius had won a court case by getting a murderer acquitted. But, unbeknownst to Marcus Antonius, Antistius is a fraud- a Greek who, pretending to be a physician, came to Rome when Caesar gave an edict to allow knowledgeable Greek physicians room to live there. With the help of his slave Janus (Todd Alan Crain), he sets about actually performing a real autopsy, supervised in part by Musa (Brian D. Coats), another slave who actually knows something about medicine, or so it seems. Like any good con man in fiction, Antistius begins to take on the nobler qualities of the character he pretends to be, beginning to feel a duty to the truth, and when he discovers unsettling evidence of even fouler play than anticipated, won't lie to the forum in accordance with the official story Marcus Antonius would like to have spread.
It's an interesting and clever story, marred in part by certain anachronistic comedic elements that don't fit the tone of the play- lines like "I suppose I will be famous for a short time. Get my ‘Quarter turn of the dial' maybe" and smirking references to Shakespeare's lines draw attention to themselves and away from the story. An overlong epilogue also seems a bit indulgent.
The cast is great- Melville is perfectly suited for his role of a charming fool drawn into intrigues which swallow him up. Crain is very amusing as Janus, who is the main (legitimate) comic relief and subtle love interest in the play. Tramont is an appropriately frightening and no-nonsense Marcus Antonius. Coats I've seen in many plays and never seen give a bad performance in anything, and here he does not disappoint, making the most of Musa's enigmatic presence. Rafael Jordan also has a few key scenes as a Roman guard.
Director Eric Parness lets the play feel its way through the comedic and tragic elements with simple but effective staging. The dead body onstage through most of Act I is not entirely believable, though copious amounts of blood get on everything.
Resonance Ensemble (in Rep with Caesar and Cleopatra)
through February 7 at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre. Performances schedule: Tuesday at 7PM; Wednesday - Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 2PM & 8PM; Sunday at 2PM & 7PM (see website for specific shows).
Photo Credit: Jon Kandel