Review: The Brutes by Theatre Synesthesia
by Michael Meigs
Playwright Casey Wimpee found an extravagant gang whose story begged to be told: the Booth family of mid-19th-century Maryland, which included the three illegitimate sons and a daughter of the august Shakespearian William Junius Booth, Sr. After you see the staging by Austin's Theatre Synesthesia in the cramped but welcoming locale of the Back Pack on east Cesar Chavez, you may well be tempted to spend some time on Wikipedia, verifying details and anecdotes. These actors, family rivalries, the theatre world of the time, and of course John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Lincoln provide a stew almost too rich for the tasting.
Wimpee sets the action at a benefit performance of Julius Caesar that raised funds to put up a Shakespeare statue still in place today in New York. It's said that this was the only occasion that all three brothers -- Junius, Jr., Edwin and John Wilkes -- appeared onstage together.
The playwright has a lot of exposition and an armload of characters to present, and his meta- approach to the material doesn't make it any easier. A four-person chorus dubbed the Brutes, nos. 1 through 4, opens with vigorous period balladry before retiring to the back of the Back Pack's shallow stage, where they occasionally comment on the action. Another Brechtian alienation technique is Wimpee's evocation of the ghost of the father to engage in lengthy dialogues with Edwin, who was later famed for his performances of Hamlet. Judd Farris as the dead dad twists, grimaces, lurches and leers in intentional exaggeration, and father and son eventually even engage in some credible swordplay.
The first half of this 90-minute outing is an imagining of family members gathering for rehearsal of Julius Caesar. The script throws them at you, and Wimpee's love for rapid-fire exchanges of short lines, a technique the ancient Greeks called stichomythia, gives the audence little pause to sort out the relations among them. The actors are loud and emphatic most of the time -- as actors of the mid-nineteenth certainly would have been in performance -- but I found myself yearning for more pauses to assimilate the situation and understand the relationships.
Scraps of Shakespeare are pasted through the script, and the staging of Caesar's assassination is an irony so heavy that it falls with a clang.
Director Devin Finn recruited a confident and capable cast that included faces new to me. Keith Adam Paxton as Edwin had the presence and stature appropriate for the role, as did Jason Graf as Junius Booth, Junior. I'd like to have seen them loaded with less exposition to get through. Marci Blackwell as their sister the actress Asia Booth was a welcome surprise both as character and actress, able to hold her own serenely with some very big character egos. John Wilkes arrives late to the rehearsal ("as always!") and devotes much of his energy to harranguing the others. Sam Owens intervenes regularly as Asia's husband Sleepy, David Boss is the busy bass-voiced supernumerary Seymour, and Chelsea Andersen plays a male jack-of-all-trades-and-all-roles dubbed Handsome.
There are some nervous moments when the charity performance is interrupted by a fire in the theatre (a feigned fire, one we're warned will be happening, but nevertheless the pretend panic onstage might make you shift in your seat).
Nicholas Kier as the future assassin makes a convincing zealot at the uncomfortable holiday meal when the script does a segue into an anachronistic Thanksgiving dinner complete with turkey. (Lincoln's 1863 proclamaton of the holiday established the Federal holiday, but the food rituals didn't become standardized until the twentieth century). We don't witness the assassination, the pursuit, or the cornering and shooting of John Wilkes Booth, but those four grinning Brutes come forward once the stage is emptied and present in grotesque mime the executions of three of Booth's co-conspirators.
All in all, The Brutes is an intellectual feast piled high with food for thought, served up with speed and emphasis. Theatre Synesthesia gets good marks for the meal, for Devin Finn's delivery as chief cook, and for telling us about the fabulous forgotten Booths.
Video: Opening Music by The Brutes
November 30 - December 17, 2017
2400 E. Cesar Chavez
Austin, TX, 78756