nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 18, 2009
Antistius is so obscure a figure in Roman history that I cannot find anything about him online in Wikipedia or elsewhere. He is mentioned in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, in a single sentence:
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.
From this passing reference, Christopher Boal has crafted a new play, 23 Knives, speculating about who Antistius may have been, how it was that he came to make a ruling about the great Julius Caesar's murder (for that's whose breast Suetonius is writing about; Suetonius goes on to say that Caesar asked Brutus, "You too, my child?", thus giving Shakespeare his source material), and what happened to this man who essentially carried out the first autopsy in known history—on the body of a man that some thought to be a god, no less.
Boal's Antistius is a Greek who came to Rome when Caesar allowed Greek physicians to attain Roman citizenship because he knew his country needed doctors (is Boal making a dig at the just-ended Bush Administration here, I wonder?). Antistius's assistant is also his slave, Janus, and a relationship deeper than just master-slave is implied though never directly depicted. Boal's back story for Antistius includes the important fact that he has become renowned for his eloquent and convincing testimony at trials, based on his medical findings, and it is for this reason that Marcus Antonius has asked (well, commanded, actually) Antistius to provide proof that Caesar was not killed by an angry mob of 23 senators but rather murdered by one man and one man alone.
Boal's imagination is free-ranging and bold, and the story he provides for this shadowy figure is inventive and fascinating and filled with delicious surprises that I do not wish to ruin for you. It involves another slave, Musa, who was Caesar's personal physician and who is dispatched to assist Antistius in his inquiry for reasons that may or may not be duplicitous. The events happen mostly in the Theater of Pompey, where Caesar's body lies after his assassination, but also moves to a prison cell, the Forum in Rome, and, eventually, Egypt.
The plot of 23 Knives doesn't always seem to hold up to tight scrutiny, but Boal and his director Eric Parness keep things moving so swiftly that there is generally not time to notice. However, the final twist (the last of many!) is so neat that I wished that it had been better supported by what comes before it.
Though there are only five characters in 23 Knives, the script calls for some complex production devices, not the least of which is the presence onstage of a credible corpse that Antistius examines, quite dramatically, before our eyes. Parness and (I presume) his props designer Paul Wilson and production manager Joe Doran have done a remarkable job solving this particular problem, giving us a very believable dead Caesar on stage. Unfortunately, other areas of the design are less satisfactorily attended to, especially the costumes (Antistius is brought to testify at the Forum in a makeshift toga draped over the dirty robe he wore during his examination of the body; very unlikely, that).
Patrick Melville, onstage for the entire play as Antistius, delivers a canny, charming, and thoughtful performance. Brian D. Coats is terrific as Musa, who may be crafty or may be simple and genuine—the quality of Coats's work is proved by our inability to be sure which. Todd Alan Crain may be overdoing the archness of the slave Janus (he plays him as a very contemporary gay-best-friend-who-lives-next-door). Ryan Tramont's Marcus Antonius is suitably commanding and complex. Rafael Jordan completes the cast as a guard.
In the end, I wished 23 Knives held together a little better than it does. But it's an entertaining play that offers yet another perspective on this most enduringly famous of political assassinations. Hail Caesar indeed.