Utah Valley University’s Cato is a Visceral Experience

A Utah Theater Review by Larisa Hicken

While the majority of my friends and neighbors gathered together Saturday night for the much anticipated “holy war” between University of Utah  and BYU football teams, my husband and I headed for neutral territory at Utah Valley University to see the play Cato, A Tragedy written by Joseph Addison.

Since I was unfamiliar with the play, I read the UVU blog post about the show and did a quick Google search for Cato and learned that the play was written in 1712 and was about the life and death of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis who lived in 95-45 BC.  If you’re planning on attending the show on Monday, you can read a synopsis of the show online and I recommend that you do so before you go!

The play was performed outside in the Sorensen Student Center courtyard in the traditional style of ancient Greek and Roman amphitheaters.  After only a few minutes, I was regretting my choice of wearing shorts and wishing for some bug spray to keep away the mosquitoes.

The first impression of the show was given to us by the unique set designed by Chase Ramsey and Jared Lewis. The set made use of some excellent graphic designs by Trevor Robertson.  The designs and the entire set included items from several different time periods.

I was interested from the set to see how the costumes (designed by Beca Acosta and Jacob Porter) would be used to reflect the “timelessness” that the director (Robbie X Pierce) was obviously trying to portray.  My favorites were the Numidian costumes and the make-up by Megan Bisbee really added to the whole look.

The costume that bothered me was Cato’s.  Underneath his war uniform, he wore a silky blue thing that reminded me of pajamas.  I was able to accept the costume better after reading dramaturg Heather Oberlander’s note in the program about the real Cato’s rather bizarre behavior of appearing in public in improper dress, but it was still a bit distracting.

The show opens with actresses Morgan Fenner playing Lucia and Lisa Nicole Thurman playing Marcia singing a lovely folksy rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  I thought that was a clever idea by the director and other songs were incorporated throughout the show as well.

I felt like the actors in the show were very talented overall, but I found myself sympathizing with the challenge they must have had with developing characters from an ancient and rather stale script written in a language that left me lost for most of the first half of the show.  The blocking was terrific and I was very impressed by the actors’ use of not just the stage area, but the entire courtyard, including the walkways up above and the surrounding stairs.

One of my favorite actors was Jordan Cummings as Sempronius.  Partly it was because when he spoke, I understood what he was saying.  But also, his body movements and facial expressions were highly entertaining and I felt like he had a well-developed character.

In the beginning of the show, the actor I struggled to connect with was Greg Larsen playing Portius.  I felt like he was reciting lines rather than acting, but after intermission, I found myself really loving his portrayal.  I’d really like to see more from him because I think he has a lot of potential as an actor.

In fact, I found myself connecting with all of the actors better in the second act because the show was played more as a comedy rather than the tragedy I was expecting to see.

There were several fabulous brotherly moments between Larsen and M. Chase Grant as Marcus.  Grant is an especially talented actor and I also really enjoyed his voice when he sang “In Flanders Field” to open Act Two. Also, the speeches delivered to the audience by Jordan Cummings as the vengeful Sempronius and Shawn Saunders as the peace-loving Lucius were delightful.

Portius and Lucia

Greg Larsen as Portius and Morgan Fenner as Lucia.  Photograph by RissaVon Photography.

The love scene between characters Juba (played by Chris Curtlett) and Marcia was quite charming as was the love scene between Portius and Lucia.

I also appreciated the performance of Jordan Hall as Syphax.  She had some really fun interactions with the audience and seemed comfortable in her character.

Throughout the show, all of the characters praised Cato, played by Brian Kocherhans, as being noble and wise, but I found his character to be indecisive and weak.  I’m not sure whether the choice to portray the character in such a incongruous manner was made by the actor or whether the director had chosen to go in that direction, but I had a very difficult time understanding why anyone would think much of Cato as a character.

The weakest character in the show was Decia played by Margaret Popin.  Though she supposedly had a past relationship with Cato, the sexuality in her first scene with him was simply awkward.  However, her song “The Universal Soldier” performed with Shawn Saunders was quite beautiful.

The scene where several soldiers are killed can only be described as goofy.  The scene is written rather violently as several people have their tongues cut out before being killed and I was actually grateful that the director kept us a little distanced from the situation by keeping it humorous and unrealistic.

Eventually, I started feeling a bit guilty that I was laughing wildly when several people were being murdered.  I was wondering what message the director was trying to convey, if any at all.  I also started questioning the general lack of Aristotelian structure of the play.  There didn’t seem to be a build up of, well, anything.  And then suddenly everyone was dying.

In fact, when Caesar’s army was reported as being at the gate and Cato’s son Marcus is murdered by the traitor Syphax, the noble Cato decides to kill himself, supposedly to save his friends from Caesar’s wrath.

Unfortunately, I was unsuspecting of the gore that was coming because the earlier battle scenes were so mild.  When Cato was brought out on a stretcher with his bowels dangling out of him, my jaw about hit the floor.  When he raised his bloody hand and his son grasped it, there was a collective, “Eeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwww,” from the audience.  I was grateful we had decided to go to dinner after the show instead of before.

Cato’s “guts” left onstage after the show.

I told my husband afterwards that my “gut feeling” was that the director should never have allowed all that blood to outweigh the rest of the show. My husband responded with, “Well, you have to admit it was a gutsy choice.”  I then mentioned that the actors had put their whole hearts into their performance.  And their livers.  And their spleens.  My husband agreed, but stated that the side-splitting humor was simply overshadowed by the gut-wrenching ending.  Then he suggested we get some sausage links for dinner.

If you’re considering bringing children to this show, trust your gut and leave them at home.

Robbie X Pierce, Director

Chris Curtlett as Juba, Director Robbie X Pierce, and Jordan Hall as Syphax
Photograph by Larisa Hicken

Cato, A Tragedy plays Sept. 12-15 and 17 at 5:30 PM, in correlation with UVU President Matthew S. Holland’s Freshman Reading Program.  Tickets for students are $3 and general admission is $5.

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