Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Art versus Action: Richard Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum

Sunday night I was lucky enough to see the final dress rehearsal before previews for Richard Nelson's new play Conversations in Tusculum, at the Public Theater. Steve Buscemi was also in attendance and I had to resist the urge to grab him and kiss him on both cheeks.

The play takes place in 45 B.C. in the months before the assassination of Julius Caesar. The main characters are Cicero, played by the monolithic Brian Dennehy, Brutus, played by the elegant Aidan Quinn, and Cassius, played by the electric David Strathairn. (Talk about an all-star cast!) Now, before your ideas about togas and stilted dialogue chase you away from this post, give me a minute.

First of all, there are no togas (sorry, ladies), or awkward pseduo-Shakespearean dialogue. Nelson's greatest achievement here may be his ability to write dialogue that is completely modern and yet artfully archaic at the same time. None of the actors speak in accents or strange rhythms. They are three friends discussing a political situation: a tyrant has grown too big for his britches, and the question is now, what to do.

Cicero takes to his pen, avoiding Caesar's growing power and the recent death of his only beloved daughter by writing tracts on the nature of death and the unavoidable future. Brutus drinks himself silly and gets red in the face, and Cassius agressively ignores Servilia (Brutus' mother and Caesar's former lover) for sending his wife as a whore to the emperor.

In this play, the word "Caesar," could be easily exchanged with "Bush." In fact, the descriptions of Caesar's behavior (past alcoholism, government really run by his advisors, and PERPETUAL WAR) highlight the obvious similarities between the two leaders. But the emotions echoed in some of the monologues, in particular with Cassius, struck a chord with most members of the audience. (How could I tell? The "mmmm"s and "ha!"s were a good indication).

So, are the crimes of the Bush administration still important even with Obama moving full speed ahead into "change"? This play answers in a resounding "YES." The collective you have to ask yourself, how do we move on from these terrors without forgetting them? And how do we punish Bush for what he has done to our country?

More importantly, if one is not a soldier or a politician, how can we take a stand against injustice? Is art enough?

For Brutus, the answer is no. But Cicero's case is more complex. In the play, when Brutus first suggests that Caesar must die, Cicero refuses to listen and quits the room. But after Brutus and Cassius (and Cicero, too, by proxy) have been humiliated by Caesar's squirrely, manipulative ways, all Cicero can offer to Brutus' proclimation is a grimace.

I find myself making the same grimace as I watch Obama make his glowing speeches after his victories this week. Like Cicero, I am all for change, but the question that keeps nagging and me, sticking its little talons into my heart, is how?


Conversations in Tusculum opens at The Public Theater on March 11th. For tickets and more information, go here.

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