With “The Colossus of Rhodes,” a bold theatrical exploration of Victorian England’s Cecil Rhodes, Carey Perloff can add playwright to her resume without blushing.
The first play from the current artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and former a.d. of New York’s Classic Stage Co., it was originally written at least 15 years ago. Substantially rewritten for its White Barn Theater premiere, it wears its Brechtian and Stoppardian influences obviously, but its subject matter is fascinating and Perloff clearly has the right theatrical instincts and the ability to write dialogue that springs to life.
Add a cast and a director that project the play with crisp, brisk power, and the results are the most worthwhile show at the White Barn in many years. The theater’s new Small Professional Theater agreement with Actors’ Equity is already bearing fruit.
Perloff states that “the characters in this play are loosely based on real people who, for better or for worse, changed the face of a continent.” She plays loosely with dates and facts, but overall “The Colossus of Rhodes” is indeed an evocation of the real Rhodes.
As performed generously by Reg Rogers (just occasionally overripe), Rhodes is a man besotted by diamonds who is convinced that the British are far superior to anyone else and are destined to rule the entire “uncivilized” world. He sets out to achieve that destiny in Africa.
To say that he’s unscrupulous is to put it mildly. Starting in 1873, he establishes a monopoly over Kimberley diamond production, becomes a South African M.P., tricks the Matabele ruler into securing further diamond concessions, conspires to overthrow Kruger in the Transvaal, and is eventually severely admonished by the British House of Commons for grave breaches of duty as prime minister of Cape Colony and administrator of the British South Africa Co.
The play is also a love story. Rhodes’ grand passion is Randall Pickering (beautifully acted by David Adkins), who not only coins the word Rhodesia, but also dreams up the bestselling phrase “diamonds are forever.” According to the play it was Rhodes and Pickering who hit upon the idea of the diamond engagement ring. Eventually Pickering dies of the smallpox he succumbs to while tending the native Africans during an epidemic, leaving Rhodes bereft.
The play ends with Rhodes dreaming up his plan for Rhodes Scholarships as his memorial to Pickering, but Perloff has yet to dramatize this ending sufficiently.
Brechtian touches include use of a Cockney-Jewish emcee named Barney Barnato and comic “alienating” songs. Partly because of the concept, partly because of Dennis Boutsikaris’ overly antic performance, these are the play’s chief points of argument. They really don’t work, but whether they should be thoughtfully revised or completely done away with is debatable.
As Charles Rudd, a Cambridge man and Rhodes’ first partner in the diamond fields (actually Rhodes’ older brother was), Michel R. Gill is upper class in all the right ways. And Sam Tsoutsouvas is tirelessly vigorous in three roles.
Clearly Rhodes, who died in 1902 at 49 and left an estate of a whopping 6 million pounds, is a fit subject for a play, and Perloff has made much good use of him. The play still needs revising, but it may well earn itself a much longer run elsewhere beyond these four White Barn performances.