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A CurtainUp Review

What a pity it is
/That we can die but once to serve our country
— A line from Cato's (Act IV, Scene 4 famously paraphrased by Nathan Hale
Andrew De Shields as Cato
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Written by Joseph Addison in 1712 and first performed in 1713, Cato was said to be the favorite play of America’s founding fathers. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams. Excerpts found their way into their letters and speeches.

Some quotes scholars have traced to this hit of the period include Patrick Henry's timeless "Give me Liberty or give me death!" — a paraphrase from "It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death." ( Act II, Scene 4). Nathan Hale's valediction "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" has its roots in "What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country" (Act IV, Scene 4)

The helpful program insert also uses references by Jim Stockdale, a Naval officer and writer, about George Washington and Cato. According to Stockdale, Washington was so taken with the character of the Roman statesman who took sides with Pompey in his unsuccessful civil war against Julius Caesar and after Pompey's defeat joined forces with Scipio to move their forces to northern Africa, that he made him his role model. He went to see Cato numerous times, from early manhood into maturity, and even had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge despite a congressional resolution that plays were inimical to republican virtue. Lines from the play appear in Washington's private correspondence as well as in his farewell address.

The play takes place in the city of Utica, in Numidia as Caesar’s troops are closing in and Cato and his troops lie in wait to make the Roman Republic's last stand. It's easy to see why the themes of liberty versus tyranny and Cato’s struggle to maintain his beliefs in the face of death appealed to the founding fathers since they almost perfectly echoed the themes of the Revolutionary War and the burgeoning American republic.

The primary story line has its share of subplots. Cato’s sons Portius and Marcus who are both in love with Lucia, the daughter of Lucius, a senatorial ally of Cato's. Lucia is friend to Cato’s daughter Marcia, who is in love with Juba, the prince of Numidia. Sempronius, another senator, and Syphax, the Numidian general, are conspiring secretly against Cato. Finally, Cato commits suicide, allowing his supporters to make peace with the advancing Caesar.

What was popular during the Revolutionary War hasn't translated into frequent modern day performances which is why director Jim Simpson pulled it out of the trunk of rarely performed plays, timing his revival to coincide with the pre-election period. Valid as the themes are, there's a reason for the play's being such a rarityi: the characters are uncomplicated mouthpieces, all the action takes place offstage, and the language is one step removed from Shakespearean English (for example: "Thou seest not that thy brother is thy rival.").

The Flea’s production is strictly bare-bones There's no scenery and the actors wear very simple costumes. They sit quietly around the stage when they’re not acting. Very Brechtian and somewhat eerie. However, the still and silent actors staring blankly ahead on the sidelines sap the drama of much of its vitality.

With just two props —a knife, and a scroll— and everything else mimed, there’s nothing to distract the eye or the senses and you become lost in a welter of republican sentiment (that’s republican with a small r, not to be confused with the Republican party). It's clear that Simpson wants to keep focus on the words and the message. And he succeeds. Almost too well. The play’s language is heady and dense, difficult for the modern ear to follow, making for a sternly intellectual evening.

The acting is all quite good, especially Andre De Shields’ performance as Cato. It’s a shame his character doesn’t really get going until the second act, but the payoff at the end is worth it. Reg E. Cathey (best known for his role in The Wire) and Anthony Cochrane, whose credits include the acclaimed The Coast of Utopia ably support De Shields along with a contingent of The Flea’s resident young actor company, The Bats.

The ensemble has clearly spent a lot of time working on the play’s language and their voices, but at the cost of any physicality. I’d love to see a production of this using director Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints (a method of improvisation for creating movement and utilizing space).

While the play’s themes are eternal, they don’t shed any new insights on this election year. Regardless of who wins the election, I doubt very seriously he would turn Caesar-style dictator and incite civil war. Despite being more historically enlightening than entertaining, this is a compelling production and Mr. Simpson deserves our gratitude for giving Cato another shot in the spotlight. Whether or not you'll be glad you saw it will depend largely on your intellectual and political fortitude.

Written by Joseph Addison
Directed by Jim Simpson
With: Andre De Shields, Reg E. Cathey, Anthony Cochrane, Brian O’Neill, Christian Baskous and The Bats: Jimmy Allen, Ben Beckley, Scott Rad Brown, Holly Chou, Ross Cowan, Jake Green, Eric Lockley, Craig Mungavin, Matthew Murumba and Carly Zien
Set and Lighting Design: Zack Tinkelman
Costume Design: Claudia Brown
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
The Flea Theatre, 41 White Street, 212-352-3101
Tuesday through Sunday at 7 pm
October 10—November 1
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on October 17th performance
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