The scene — a couple of world-weary senators, on the losing end of a power struggle, engaged in a late-night bitching session at a rural estate just outside the capital city — is set long ago and far away, in Rome in 45-44 BCE, but it could just as easily come from contemporary politics.
Audiences can expect to learn something from the unapologetically pedantic script by the many-laureled Richard Nelson — winner of a Tony, two Obies, an Olivier, and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It is studded by readings from works by the three principals — Cicero (Jerry Oshinsky), Cassius (William Waxman), and Brutus (Ed Giron) — including a list that Cicero has fondly compiled of words and concepts that Latin took from Greek. Infinity, for example. I did not know that.
Audiences can also expect to be struck anew by how closely we resemble our Roman cultural ancestors, as the script resonates with modern times on several frequencies. The playwright emphasizes this affinity by having Brutus read, from a work titled “Self-Consolation,” an essay on the death of his pet dog. Other familiar notes are Caesar’s purported belief in “perpetual war” and these one-percenters’ avid interest in the real estate market. (“He sold it for three times what he paid for it,” says Cassius.)
The cerebral appeal is enlivened by some very engaged reading/acting by the three principle actors, whose convincing verbal nuance and physical expression, even in a reading, are on a par with what we have come to expect from them. They are joined by Aden Hailu, Maia Mook, and Philip Levene in supporting roles. Otherwise, the set’s visual interest for this staged reading is limited to a single chandelier (and thank goodness for the chandelier), the tall platform where Cicero sits, and the actors’ charmingly unpretentious costumes, which look like they might have been acquired in post-Halloween sales.
Everybody mostly remains seated except for Brutus and Cassius, who frequently walk offstage to go to work in the capital, returning to the country to exchange often bitterly satirical anecdotes, news, and gossip. (Caesar was so drunk he threw up in a theater; he has erected a statue of “his Egyptian whore” Cleopatra next to the goddess Athena). At one point, Brutus argues to Cassius that the dictator-for-life can be worked with — he’s mellowed; he’s tired of war; he’s done with humiliating his political opponents; he wants to talk with Cassius; he’s said some very flattering things. Ultimately, of course (spoiler alert!), they decide they have no choice but to assassinate him. DIJO Productions specializes in historical dramas, among other genres. In fact, its fully staged production of David Ives’s New Jerusalem, set in 17th-century Amsterdam, is running at the Center Stage concurrently with Conversations in Tusculum.
Conversations in Tusculum will be presented Tuesday, November 13, at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday, November 24 and 25, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 general, $18 students and seniors. Call the box office at (805) 963-0408 or visit the Center Stage Theater website.