Ross Cowan, Carly Zien, Andre De Shields,
and Brian O'Neil in Cato
(© Richard Termine)
Ross Cowan, Carly Zien, Andre De Shields,
and Brian O'Neil in Cato
(© Richard Termine)
The American revolutionaries who so prized Joseph Addison's 1713 play Cato, now getting a rare and welcome revival at the Flea Theater, were no doubt better versed in Roman history than us less literate moderns. Not to worry: In director Jim Simpson's pared-down production the saga all but tells itself -- and it's riveting.

Addison may have employed the high-flying language and metered verse popular in his day, but he also managed to shake up dry history by commingling the political and personal arenas. Even as the fugitive senator Cato (André De Shields), a Stoic of legendary probity, boldly strives to hold the line as Caesar expands his power grab into North Africa, younger members of Cato's retinue undergo their first throes of romance. It would be difficult to say which battle is more pitched.

Further enlivening the plot are not one but a pair of two-faced palace plotters: Cato's fellow senator Sempronius (played by Anthony Cochrane with villainous glee, a fluttering black fan substituting for twirled mustache) and the Numidian general Syphax (the volatile and electrifying Reg E. Cathey), a venerable and ostensibly faithful adviser to the young African prince Juba (an exuberant Eric Lockley).

Just to keep those subplots spinning, there's Juba, a strapping youth whose only apparent defect is a monarchical bloodline and who is enamored of Cato's upstanding daughter Marcia (a radiant, forceful Carly Zien). Meanwhile, her bosom friend Lucia (Holly Chou) agrees to wed Marcia's hot-headed brother Marcus (the fiery Jake Green) although she loves -- and is loved by -- his more moderate sibling Portius (an overly contemporary Ross Cowan).

The entire cast, when not interacting, sits on benches along the sidelines, thrumming and stomping in counterpoint to the text's iambic pentameter. The device seems affected at first -- and annoying as well, in that it reinforces a sense of lockstep rhythm. As the play progresses, however, the accompaniment varies in pace and mood; and since it proves to be virtually the only theatrical artifice employed, its power grows. The beat serves many functions, as well, from filling in as the tattoo of armies on the march to the palpitations experienced by young lovers.

If De Shields is a bit off-putting and orotund as the hero of the hour, it's no doubt by design: Cato emerges here as one of those paragons of self-discipline bound to incur as much resentment as admiration. Indeed, the schemer Syphax, when not busy grooming the adulatory Juba as an insurrectionist, secretly disparages Cato as "ambitiously sententious."

Are there timely allusions to be gleaned? You may, if you like, cast George W. Bush as the self-styled emperor, blithely undermining the founding principals of our own republic. Such a gloss, though, is mere dividend. The real treasure is this sparkling political intrigue, which hasn't lost a scintilla of luster over the intervening centuries.