What's worse is that 23 Knives is so thoroughly corrupt as to believe it is both educational and engrossing when it is neither. Although Boal borrows from several genres of artistic and intellectual pretension, he has no idea what he wants to accomplish. At times, 23 Knives is a lower-decks play, depicting great events through the eyes of a minor figure, Antistius (Patrick Melville), ordered by Mark Antony (Ryan Tramont) to autopsy Caesar. At others, it's a counterfactual play, presenting a version of history different from the one received; the evidence here cuts against the Senators murdering Caesar, and for long stretches, it just feels likes a lengthy episode of CSI.
Boal takes advantage of none of these modes, bogging down in problems of dramatic tension and dialogue. Almost every scene is a clumsy argument involving attempts to persuade an illogically entrenched character. The dialogue, meanwhile, is a mix of mispronounced Latin, awkwardly jarring vulgarity, and portentous drivel.
And let's not forget the slaves -- who come apparently in two flavors: creepy (Brian D. Coats) and flamboyant (Todd Alan Crain). The latter is bizarrely featured as the play morphs increasingly into a tale of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. While the timidity of the gay love story might be appropriate in 1950s America, it's not so in Rome of 44 BC where guy-on-guy love would hardly have raised an eyebrow -- particularly between master and slave.
Director Eric Parness neither plays the material straight nor turns it into camp. Instead, he shifts tone and logic unapologetically, convinced that he has the audience so hooked that they'll follow him anywhere (including a miscalculated ending). As for the performances, let's just say that I began by thinking the acting was letting down the writing, and ended up reversing my opinion.
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