Rodney Lee Rogers' one-man show Sic Semper Tyrannis presents a rarefied view of the life of Edwin Booth, who was widely considered one of the greatest American actors of the 19th century but is best remembered by history as the brother of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Rogers, who originally debuted the show as The Tragedian before revising the script for this year's Piccolo, takes on several characters throughout the play, including his father on his deathbed and his infamous brother at the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown. The transitions are seamless and effective, with Rogers picking up a hunched back and gruff voice for Edwin's father, a slight Virginia drawl for his brother.
The show is also liberally sprinkled with lines of Shakespeare from the tragic roles Edwin Booth was best known for playing — particularly Hamlet. Notably, Rogers performs part of Hamlet's immortal soliloquy ("To be, or not to be") twice in the play, first with roaring intensity and later with a quiet tone of near-defeat.
Sic Semper Tyrannis is in part a Civil War story, but one that takes place entirely away from the battlefield. Rogers clearly devoted himself to research, and as a result the play shows the ironic and fascinating ways in which the War Between the States divided the Booth family. The three Booth brothers — Edwin, John Wilkes, and Junius Jr. — at one point starred together in a production of Julius Caesar, and while John Wilkes originally wanted to play Brutus, Rogers reveals that the political realities of the time prevented the director from casting the Confederate-aligned brother in the role of assassin and traitor.
History buffs will find much to sink their teeth into with this play, and thespians will appreciate a glimpse into the mind of a formidable talent. For the non-expert non-historian, though, the thing that will stick with you the most is Edwin Booth's deep insecurity. Rogers shows Booth repeatedly struggling to come out from the shadow of his father, also a great actor of the time. In one early scene, where Edwin is asked to fill in for his father in a stage role, Rogers stumbles out onto the stage with his pants unzipped, visibly uncomfortable in another man's ill-fitting costume.
The weight of his father's genius seems to frighten Booth in the beginning, but later it is his brother's infamy that hangs over him like a dark cloud. Despite Booth's critical acclaim — especially during a legendary 100-night production of Hamlet — he is continually dogged by sleights: the king of Hawaii contrasting him with his father, the crowd that fills a theater just to see an assassin's brother. Rogers often plays the role of Edwin with wide-eyed bewilderment, looking for all intents and purposes like a man caught in the crosshairs of history.
Comedic moments, while few and far between, are a welcome reprieve from the gloomy intensity of the show. Adding visual interest, a single wheeled box is used to represent a train, a boat, a deathbed, a changing room, and perhaps a dozen other set pieces. Rogers also gets a wide variety of uses out of a bolt of velvet-looking fabric, at one point rolling himself into a cocoon on the floor while waxing poetic and self-pitying about "the life of the tragedian."
The Shakespeare scenes often acquire new shades of meaning in Rogers' play, as when he takes on the character of King Lear at the point of his father's death: "Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!" Other times, the snippets from the Bard — while ably acted — don't seem to shed much light on Booth's emotional state.
When, for example, Booth is mourning the death of his young wife, he slips into the character of Hamlet grieving Ophelia's death. It's an odd choice, as Booth's wife died of illness and Ophelia died of what some characters in Hamlet believed to be suicide.
But more often than not, the Shakespeare works. Booth was, after all, a man who largely built his career on the Bard's words, and it only makes sense that those words would well up during his most emotional moments.
"I believe I was born good, and I believe there is good in me still," Rogers says in the role of Edwin Booth. It's an important line in a play that shows a man wrestling with the demons of his country, his family, and his own self.