One spring night in 1871, six years after John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, John’s actor brother Edwin descended to the furnace room of his New York theater. There he unparceled every one of John Wilkes’s costumes—including, presumably, the toga worn in his great triumph as Marc Anthony—and burned them. Though a private act of mourning, it’s indelibly theatrical. The Booth Variations, a multimedia collaboration by Todd Cerveris, Nick Philippou, and Caridad Svich, is not. Visually arresting and occasionally quite lyrical, the play mires itself in solipsism and ellipses. Neither Edwin nor John Wilkes ever fully emerges. Strands of plot and theme surface, only to slip away undeveloped.
Edwin was a famous tragedian who found himself enmeshed in all sorts of personal melodrama. Heir to the talents of his father, Junius Brutus Booth, he developed a more casual and conversational style of acting. Described by an 1860s critic as “pale, thin, intellectual, with long black hair and dark eyes,” Edwin excelled in roles such as Brutus, Iago, Richard III, and especially Hamlet. Devastated by his brother’s treason, he briefly retired, but returned to play the Dane with renewed melancholy. Other misfortunes—the death of an infant son, the insanity of his second wife—were thought to deepen and intensify his performances.
“The theater is a box,” announces Edwin (Todd Cerveris) as he arrives onstage. And this production thinks inside it. Minimally lit and barely costumed, setless save for two desks (manned by actor-techies Josh Mann and Lila Donnolo) and several monitors, the play resists illusionism. Live camera feeds and back-wall projections, and seated interruptions by Mann and Donnolo, prevent the audience from ever succumbing to narrative or emotional involvement. The script flits from episode to episode, resolving in a surreal sequence in which Edwin enacts his famous Hamlet for a documentary crew.
Stocky, with thinning hair, Cerveris doesn’t look much like Edwin, nor does he project the actor’s famed “quietude,” but he does give a sober and thoughtful performance. Cerveris’s own brother, Michael (coincidentally, the star of the Assassins revival), appears on-screen as John Wilkes. Red-lit and bald, he makes unparseable pronouncements in lowering tones. “The ravenous eye burns through flesh straight through carcass” or “our voices splinter the silicon dream,” for example. It is a wonder that while Michael wears impressive mustaches, he fails to twirl them.
The collaborators should be lauded for their attempt not to produce a straight bio-play, yet the biographic snippets, the Shakespeare quotes, and the John Wilkes interludes add up to less than they ought to. When the three-camera Hamlet ceased, the audience seemed relieved that the rest was silence.