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A CurtainUp Review
23 Knives

Honorable men?? Oh, that's good. I'll have to remember that.— Antonius
When writing plays based on historical occurrences, playwrights may change events and write a "what if" play, or they may take a true mystery and create a possible solution. But they can't very successfully fabricate a mystery where solid facts exist. So the real mystery in Christopher Boal's 23 Knives is why Boal thought he could generate uncertainty over one of the most documented murders in history — the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Roman Forum.

Apparently Boal drew his inspiration from one line in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius: "And of so many wounds, none turned out to be mortal, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, except the second one in the breast." This is believed to be not only the first recorded post-mortem, but, because Antistius presented his findings before the forum, the origin of the word "forensic," derived from "forum."

In Boal's play, Antistius (Patrick Melville) is not exactly a physician. In Greece, he made his living "cutting up corpses in Athens and interpreting dreams for bread and grape leaves." He ended up as a doctor in Rome only because Caesar had offered Greek physicians Roman citizenship.

Marcus Antonius (Ryan Tramont), who believes Antistius has knowledge in such matters, wants Antistius to determine exactly whose dagger actually provided the death blow. But of course, it's quite clear Antonius wants the culprit to be Brutus, which will fuel his rebellion. Why figuring out which knife (there were 23) actually killed Caesar will do the trick is never fully explained.

Both Antistius and Antonius have remarkably vocal and intelligent slaves. Antonius's is Musa (Brian D. Coats) and Antistius's is Janus (Todd Alan Crain). For those who need a reminder: Janus is the two-headed Roman god who presides over beginnings and endings, entrances and exists (January, the first month of the year, and janitors, who take care of doors and halls, are both named after him). The Muses are nine Greek goddesses who inspire artists.

For some reason, Crain portrays Janus as a gay man. He's practical, down-to-earth and loyal — the kind of guy you'd want when you need a reliable decorator for your new apartment on the Upper East Side. What this has to do with the play is anyone's guess.

If Antistius's specific mission is to help Antonius foment a revolt, his broader goal is the universal search for truth. A quest which he finds both impossible and dangerous. This all seems to be heavy stuff, but the play is considerably lightened by Boal's tongue-in-cheek references to modern times and Shakespeare's famous play.

Director Eric Parness keeps 23 Knives moving at a brisk clip, perhaps hoping no one will notice the repetitiveness of the dialogue. The actors, given little to use in the realm of characterization, relationships or back story, do their best to make their roles work. Tramont puffs out his chest and threatens. Melville is subservient and wily.

But in the end 23 Knives is mostly the intellectual exercise of a playwright who has more of a gift for dialogue than actually crafting a play that matters in any dramatic, emotional or thematic level. For the audience, that may be the most unkindest cut of all.

Editor's Note: This being another in Resonance Ensemble's pairing of an old and a new play, and it looks as if the George Bernard Shaw whose Caesar and Cleopatra runs in repertory with this play, has the edge over Christopher Boal—and that Curtainup reviewer Gregory Wilson had a better time than Paulanne Simmons. At any rate, here's the link to Resonance's Caesar and Cleopatra.

23 Knives
By Christopher Boal
Directed by Eric Parness
Cast: Patrick Melville (Antistius), Todd Alan Crain (Janus), Ryan Tramont (Marcus Antonius), Brian D. Coats (Muse), Rafael Jordan (A Roman Guard)
Scenic Designer: Sarah B. Brown
Costume Designer: Sidney Shannon
Lighting Designer: Pamela Kupper
Original Music Composer and Sound Designer: Nick Moore
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Presented by Resonance Ensemble in repertory with Caesar and Cleopatra
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
From 1/ll/09; opening 1/18/09; closes 2/7/09
Tickets: $18 (212) 279-4200
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 15. 2009
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