18th century essayist and poet Joseph Addison’s best-remembered work is the 1712 play Cato: a Tragedy, a work so classic and resonant George Washington himself purportedly used speeches from it to inspire troops, commissioning a production during the American Revolution. The play, addressing such subjects as the importance of freedom, the corruption of tyrannical rule, and valor in battle, made for a logical choice. It makes for an equally logical choice for Jim Simpson to mount the show at The Flea, timed for a polarizing presidential election. And while Cato may be three centuries old, and set before the Common Era, his production makes this tale completely accessible.
Addison himself dabbled in politics, having served as Under-Secretary of State for the Whig party, and his experience informed his writing. Cato occurs in the year 46 B.C. in the city of Utica, in Numidia, where the title character Cato (André De Shields) is the last Roman holdout against Julius Caesar, whose mighty army approaches to battle his mightiest remaining foe. Cato surrounds himself with two advisors, the peaceful Lucius (Brian O'Neill) and the violent, untrustworthy Sempronius (Anthony Cochrane). Sempronius, however, has his own ideas about how to use the Numidian army for personal benefit.
The plot isn’t only political, of course; Addison’s web also has its romantic entanglements. Cato’s sons Marcus (Jake Green) and Portius (Ross Cowan) both pine for Lucia (Holly Chou), Lucius’ daughter, while Cato's daughter Marcia (Carly Zien) has her own admirer in Juba (Eric Lockley), a Numidian prince.
Simpson’s bare-bones approach, with Zack Tinkelman’s unadorned set, Claudia Brown’s muted costume design, and all actors offstage sitting on benches where they can be seen, allows his audience to focus on the plot at hand. I also appreciated Simpson’s choice of color-blind casting, though I can see how it might confuse some audience members. Cato is white, though De Shields is African-American, with white children.
Nonetheless, the seasoned cast overcomes this minor obstacle. De Shields is quite the commanding presence as the stoic leader. The title character is strength incarnate. Cato does everything right – he lives by a code of honor, dignity and strength. It is easy for such a man to feel, well, like something more than a man, but De Shields digs beneath Addison’s language to portray a man with real heart and human connection. It helps, perhaps, that De Shields, a veteran of such shows as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Wiz is also a musician and choreographer. His sense of movement and rhythm is integral to Cato. De Shields’ every step, gesticulation and voice modulation are carefully measured and perfectly justified, setting the tone for the whole show.
While the tone is spot-on, I did have some quibbles with Simpson’s pacing, particularly at the production’s end. As the plot unfurls and and events escalate, the show languishes, slowing right when it should heat up. Several scenes drop in when by this time, they should proceed at a more clipped pace to maximize dramatic effect.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast follows De Shields’ lead. Cochrane, for example, convincingly allows the seeds of betrayal to take root as Cato unfolds. Many of the most successful scenes in the show are enacted by Cato’s younger actors, a large number of whom are members of the Bats, the Flea’s repertory troupe. They have a professional grasp of Addison’s language, and find the urgency in the character’s lives so that their portrayals feel fresh and relevant. Lockley’s and Zien’s scenes together, in particular, suggest a very humanistic element as they fumble back and forth with the trappings of misunderstood young love. Cowan and Green are also effective in their scenes together.
Simpson’s production of Cato brings history to vivid life. I can only hope that whatever changes the incoming new administration brings, we only have to re-live Addison’s lessons on the stage.