The moment is almost over before you realize you've been waiting for it. A famous actor known only for his stage work is confronted by multiple television cameras viewing him from every angle, and providing close-ups and long shots to a viewing audience of millions. Is this performance more or less real than his work in live theatre, of which no records exist as he died years before motion-picture cameras were invented?
The relationships between art and truth and the camera and the naked eye are at the center of The Booth Variations, the new play at 59E59. The actor in question - the great Edwin Booth - overwhelms the cameras as one imagines he must have his live audiences, but giving this particular performance how could he not? Occurring only months after Edwin's brother - John Wilkes - assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, Edwin is himself playing Hamlet, resolving to kill a ruler of a very different sort. Can Edwin communicate this intentionally uncomfortable subject and bring humanity to a man demonized for his own similar actions?
That question is conclusively answered with the electric performance of Todd Cerveris (who, with Caridad Svich, wrote the play, and conceived it with Svich and Nick Philippou). He delivers a speech from Hamlet with a gripping intensity and a sense of previously unrevealed size, tapping into hidden reserves of both light and darkness. His Hamlet demonstrates not only that Edwin Booth was a master performer, but also a teacher and healer capable of bringing onstage and offstage events together in a collision of the most enervating theatrical kind.
The combination of Cerveris, the live video feed of him projected onto the theater's rear wall, and the voiceover performances given by his two stagehand-like costars (Josh Mann and Lila Donnolo), playing two awestruck observers in the studio's control room, result in a suffusive, breathtaking scene without match in The Booth Variations. Unfortunately, the dramatic foundation on which the scene is built is not as solid as one would like, and while the production's impressive visual and aural elements cohere brilliantly here, they feel far less effective elsewhere.
It's most noticeable in the first scene, when young Edwin watches his father (Cerveris, in another video projection) as King Lear. Here, the video isn't capturing truth, but falsehood: a man going through the physical and vocal paces of an acting style that Edwin would, eventually, reject in favor of a more naturalistic approach. Yet decades later, when the now established and beloved Edwin confronts celebrity photographer Matthew Brady (best known today for his Civil War photos), the camera becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth, mirroring Edwin's own quest for realism while demonstrating how far he has yet to go.
There's just not a smooth transition from one to the other. The latter scene, however, proves greatly effective as a spiritual counterpart to the production's climactic television performance; it's an interesting way to explore ideas about how truth is hidden and exposed, and how cameras reveal what the naked eye might otherwise miss. During much of the rest of the show, those elaborate projections (by Peter Nigrini, also the show's lighting designer) and precise, motion-conscious direction (by Philippou) detract from Cerveris and his Booth rather than enhance them, taking a wider view where a narrow one might be more advisable.
This spells trouble for any show relying less on a linear narrative than on a series of thematically linked scenarios and meditations; it can be all too easy to disrupt with visual tricks what must be a continuous flow. The videotaped performances incorporated into the production - which include Cerveris's brother Michael, again playing the role of John Wilkes Booth for which he just won a Tony in the musical Assassins - are distracting in this way, as is the music by Michael Cerveris and Will Johnson, which is intentionally modern in sound but doesn't complement the show's ever-creative visuals in either style or complexity.
The show never seems more interesting than when Todd Cerveris, as Edwin, pulls the necessary strings to allow all the connections to make themselves. He never does that better than in the play's final two scenes, when Edwin appears before the television cameras and subsequently takes up the mantle of his Hamlet's real-world counterpart. At these times, the play's images, ideas, and emotions are never in clearer focus, and the characters of both Edwin and John Wilkes never seem more alive.
The rest of The Booth Variations, however, seems content to leave history behind it rather than create much of its own.
The Moonshine Project