Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Caesar's Blood takes place in November 1864, and although the assassination is never mentioned, its specter hangs over the entire play. It's assumed that everyone in the audience knows what is going to happen the following April.
Most people know that John Wilkes Booth was an actor, but not everyone knows about the rest of his family. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was born in England but became one of the most famous actors in America. Three of his American-born sons became actors as well. The most highly regarded was Edwin Booth, but the older Junius Brutus Jr. and the younger John Wilkes were quite well known too.
The three brothers appeared together on stage only once, in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar in New York to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. Rich Rubin has used this occasion to imaginatively depict the sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and sometimes explosive backstage interaction between the brothers, their mother, and Edwin's African-American valet Benjamin. Benjamin is the only fictional character. He was born into slavery, became a free man, learned to read, and is working for Edwin in order to support his family in Pittsburgh. He knows the role of Othello by heart. He is the most intelligent person in the room.
Much of the play is about the vulnerable egos of actors, even famous ones, and about sibling rivalry. How would you feel if your younger brother were called "the handsomest man in America," or if you're an actor and your older brother is considered the greatest actor of his time? What if your mother dotes almost incestuously on your younger brother? This part of the play is fairly light, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and a good depiction of theater people and family dynamics, neither of which have changed in ages.
The darker side of the play stems from John Wilkes's fanatical hatred of Lincoln and his maniacal racism. We the audience know where this is going to lead, even though the other four characters in the play have no inkling. As soon as J.W. sees a portrait of Lincoln, he launches into an irrational tirade against the "tyrant." The fact that they are performing Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, of course, is premonitory of what befalls those whom some call tyrants. Caesar's blood will be Lincoln's blood.
Toward Benjamin, John Wilkes spews such anti-Negro vitriol that it would be considered unseemly at a KKK rally. I found this part of the play unsubtle, to say the least. Unconvincing is more like it. It is never fully explained why J.W. is so different from his brothers, who are not at all racist, so far as we can see. The only reason I could gather is that the two older brothers traveled around the country with their father, while J.W. stayed home in Maryland, south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even so, if he were raised around slavery, why does he fly off the handle when he sees a black man working for Edwin? We could say that he's just a hot-headed ignoramus, but it would help if his motivations were delved into a bit more. (Maybe we can't know why he thought the way he thought, based solely on the historical evidence that we have about him, but writers have the freedom to invent.)
Rubin adheres to the dictum that if a gun appears in the first act, it must be used in the second. We know what that pistol's ultimate target will be, but that's not part of this play. It contributes to an exciting scene here, though, shortly before the end. Then there's a twist that I did not expect, and it turns out to be an excellent way to bring the play to a close. All in all, the play is compelling, and it certainly maintains interest throughout.
The cast is top notch. Hakim Bellamy is perfect as Benjamin: deferential yet strong, humiliated yet noble. Stafford Douglas is good-looking enough to play John Wilkes credibly, acts as cocky as I'm sure J.W. did, and delivers the heavy-handed lines he has been given with fervor. Shangreaux Lagrave gives a fine self-mocking performance as the not-as-successful-as-the-other-brothers Junius. Debi Kierst does a wonderful, mostly comic turn as their mother Mary Ann Holmes. (Apparently, she and Mr. Booth Sr. had ten children but never married, as he already had a wife in England.) However, I'm not sure what accent she is using (Amanda Wingfield, maybe?). Probably it should be more British. Micah Linford (Edwin) is always good, and he is good here, too, but I wish he would bring more emotion to his final minute on the stage.
The play is commendably directed by Ryan Jason Cook, including some physically violent scenes. My only gripe is that the actors have at times been directed to perform according to the Ryan Jason Cook school of acting, which is: talk loud; for emphasis, talk louder; for dramatic effect, yell; for maximum effect, shout as loud as you can. There was a lot of yelling going on. What didn't work for me was the end of the first act, when Benjamin is alone on stage and vents his pent-up frustration and rage by practically screaming and throwing furniture around. The audience was almost knocked out of their seats by this (figuratively), but I found it not in keeping with his essentially stoic nature, and I think some stifled sobs and a furtive tear would have been more true to the character. Truth be told, though, Ryan's take on this is probably a better choice theatrically.
Ryan also did the excellent set. The lighting by Nick Tapia is superb, with realistic flickering from the fires that were set that evening in New York by Southern sympathizers. The sound design by Lando Ruiz is terrific. The sound of horses galloping is well done, but what impressed me the most is a low-pitched thrumming that adds an ominous atmosphere to the dramatic scenes. Set decoration and props by Nina Dorrance are at her usual high level, but her costuming is a little suspect. Zippers in 1864?
Despite my few reservations above, this play is quite an achievement by both Rich Rubin (a retired University of New Mexico physician) and the entire cast and creative team. The Adobe Theater deserves applause for consistently taking chances on original works. This is one of the best of their world premieres.
Caesar's Blood, a new play by Rich Rubin, is being presented by the Adobe Theater on North 4th Street, a few blocks north of Alameda, in Albuquerque, through April 17, 2016. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. An extra performance on Thursday, April 14, at 7:30, to commemorate the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination. Information can be found at www.adobetheater.org or by calling 505-898-9222.