Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Brutes

Last night, I saw Casey Wimpee's play The Brutes at the New Ohio Theatre. This production by spit&vigor reimagines the rehearsals for the famous production of Julius Caesar presented in New York City in 1864, featuring all three of the sons of actor Junius Booth... just months before one of them--John Wilkes--assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

The story has plenty of inherent drama. Edwin Booth, the most successful of the three brothers, was preparing to take on the title role in Hamlet for 100 nights at the Winter Garden Theatre, which he co-managed with his brother-in-law John Sleeper Clarke. The night before he was to begin this extraordinary run of Hamlet, he appeared for the first and only time on stage with his two brothers, Junius Jr. and John Wilkes.

Booth's production of Julius Caesar was intended as a benefit to raise funds for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. Junius Booth Jr., the eldest, played Cassius, while Edwin played Brutus and John Wilkes played Marc Antony. The production was also a tribute to Junius Sr., and the playbill bore the words "FILII PATRI DIGNO DIGNIORES" which means roughly "worthy children of a worthier father."

As The Brutes points out, this performance took place on Evacuation Day (November 25th), the holiday marking the evacuation of British troops from Manhattan during the American Revolution. It also fell just after the last Thursday in November, which President Lincoln had declared a national holiday of Thanksgiving for the second year in a row. (The holiday had been celebrated only sporadically before then, and on various dates.)

Wimpee gives us what is possibly the most awkward Thanksgiving dinner of all time, as the pro-Union Edwin and Junius Jr. sit down to eat turkey and cranberry sauce with their unabashedly pro-Southerner brother. John Wilkes Booth reportedly confided in his sister Asia Booth Clark that he was running the drug quinine to the Confederacy past a Union blockade. Wimpee dramatizes this conversation, giving a moment to shine for Sara Fellini, who plays Asia, and Colt W. Keeney, who plays John Wilkes.

Fellini also directed the piece, and she has a chorus of "Brutes" appear first in masks and then later with drums, beating out a violent rise in tension throughout the play. Some of the Brutes--Herold, George, and Mary--bear names similar to Booth's alleged co-conspirators, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt. A fourth Brute, Fontaine, bears the name of a hanged man who requested that after his execution his skull be given to Junius Booth Sr. to use as Yorick's skull in Hamlet. (That skull continued to be used by Edwin, and it is now in the possession of the Players Club, which that actor helped to found.)

Junius Booth Sr. appears in The Brutes as a ghost played by Eamon Murphy. He re-enacts scenes from Hamlet together with Edwin, played by Adam Belvo. In addition, we get not only scenes from Julius Caesar (which is to be expected) but also lines from King Lear. Edwin takes on the role of Edgar, while John Wilkes assumes the role of the traitor, Edmund the Bastard. As characters in The Brutes observe, all of the Booth children were technically bastards, since Junius Sr. had abandoned his first wife to run off to America with a flower girl. (The couple claimed to be married, but weren't officially wed until the year before the famed actor died.)

The infamous benefit performance of Julius Caesar did not go well, in spite of the $3,500 it raised for the statue of Shakespeare (which still stands in Central Park). During the first scene of Act II, audiences were distracted by a cacophony of alarm bells and fire engines. Confederate sympathizes had set fire to various parts of the city, and the building directly next to the theatre was ablaze. According to contemporary reports, Edwin Booth calmed the crowd and helped to prevent hysteria. The performance continued, and eventually the cast finished the show.

Fellini stages the fire with the four Brutes utilizing percussion and red flashlights. It is a haunting moment, as are the allusions to the Lincoln assassination and the execution of the conspirators. As Wimpee's play remarks, the president's murder did not occur on the Ides of March like Caesar's, but it did occur on the eve of the Ides of April. That day, which was also Good Friday, Lincoln was watching the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre, and John Wilkes Booth snuck in and shot him in the back of the head.

If you're interested in seeing The Brutes, it's playing at the New Ohio until December 9th.