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The Colossus of Rhodes 

In Africa with colonial baron Cecil Rhodes, by the artistic director of ACT

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
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Before he even attended Oxford -- later than usual -- Cecil Rhodes took the advice that critic John Ruskin was dispensing to Oxford's smart young men in the 1880s: Go to Africa. Conquer. Bring the blessings of our civilization to the savages and spread the glory of Queen Victoria far and wide. Rhodes was an ambitious, American-style upstart with little taste for beauty who set up diamond mines in South Africa, then went to Oxford, and proceeded to conquer British politics and London society and leave behind a scholarship in his name. ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff has written a play about him. (She went to Oxford in the 1980s, not as a Rhodes scholar.) In her play, Rhodes has a homoerotic friendship with Randall Pickering, an aesthete who does appreciate the beauty of Africa, and so makes up the missing half of the colonial baron's personality. Their friendship parallels a marriage between an African woman named Fanny and Barney Barnato, a rival British mine owner. The first half of the play is a tight, engaging summary of Rhodes' early career and his founding of what would become the De Beers diamond monopoly. The second half sprawls and loses focus. It gives Rhodes' affection for Pickering the power of a love affair, even though we never see them truly fall in love. Innuendo and suggestion are supposed to make up for passion in Perloff's Victorian England, but, alas, they don't. The alehouse songs about colonialism, sung barely in tune by Paul Vincent Black (who otherwise does a good job with Barnato), could be cut. Allyn Burrows and David Adkins do well as Rhodes and Pickering, though, and Rufus Collins plays a nicely pompous Charles Rudd, Rhodes' business partner. The play is just too long.

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