Rafael De Mussa and James Jorsling in Benito Cereno
(© Stephanie Berge)
Rafael De Mussa and James Jorsling in Benito Cereno
(© Stephanie Berge)
The rarely seen Benito Cereno, Robert Lowell's adaptation of Herman Mellvillle's novella, suffers from an inconsistent tone in Woodie King Jr.'s revival, now being presented by Horizon Theatre Rep at the Flea.

The play opens with an American captain, Amasa Delano (Arthur Bartow) and his lacky, John Perkins (Benjamin Thys), spotting a ship that appears to be distressed in the distance. As it approaches, their curiosity grows and leads them to board what appears to be the Spanish boat of Don Benito Cereno (Rafael De Mussa). Through some plot twists, we get to know the true relationship between Cereno, his "slave", Babu (Jaymes Jorsling), and the mass of chained Africans kept underneath the main chambers of the boat.

Their presence is shadowy and their role only truly becomes clear towards the end of this intermissionless one-act, but the payoff seems hollow due to the one-dimensional characterization of the slaves, who mainly appear to stage primal dances that play out like atonalities in an otherwise major-scale piece.

As Cereno, Mussa exudes an over-the-top seriousness that would be more at home in Monty Python than Melville. It's actually distracting as one's inclined to anticipate a punchline that never comes. If there was some humor, though, the humanity of these characters could come through and illuminate the play's central theme of how otherwise compassionate people can treat those they view as "other" with unthinkable brutality.

Published on the cusp of the Civil War, Melville's novella spoke to a very different generation of people to whom slaves were commonplace. Lowell adapted the work for the stage in the middle of the civil rights movement during the 1960s, when the work probably felt all too relevant. Sadly, it now feels uncomfortably dated. In the end, the heart of Melville's novella may still be there, but we need to use more modern tools to get at it.