With Julius Caesar, Bridge Repertory shows that it can assemble a strong ensemble and put together a memorable sensory experience.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston. At Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center For the Arts, Boston, MA, through May 30.
By Ian Thal
Julius Caesar has long been the best known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays: its plot and the historical events that inspired it are common knowledge, and Marc Antony’s funeral oration has long been used as an object lesson in the rhetorical use of irony and sarcasm. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus are beginning to generate some more productions and interest, but for the time being, Caesar still reigns.
The Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston is currently offering a stripped-down, modern dress production that clocks in at about 100 minutes without an intermission. Director Olivia D’Ambrosio is due some praise for helming a visually distinctive minimalist presentation, but her breakneck ‘fast and furious” pacing ends up leaving the Bard’s poetry and the subtleties of the realpolitik narrative in the dust.
Cutting, and sometimes rearranging, scenes is not an uncommon practice with Shakespeare texts. The economics of the theater often demand it, given the length of his plays and the sizes of the cast. Still, it is reasonable to demand that the redacted script serve the essence of the story — no major organs should be extracted. Unfortunately, some basic elements are left out of the mix here: Brutus’ (Joe Short) psychological struggle in balancing honor, patriotism, and friendship, which has marked the figure as a potential tragic hero for generations, has been downplayed, to the point that he’s just barely distinguishable from the opportunistic Cassius (John Tracey). The other conspirators, Casca, Decius, and Cinna (Bari Robinson, Juan C. Rodríguez, and Jacob Athyal) fare worse.
Meanwhile, the speed of the production steam rolls over linguistic nuance and meaning. Brutus appears to be informed of Portia’s death after he has already described her suicide to Cassius; Marc Antony (Tiffany Nicole Greene) and Octavius Caesar (Rodríguez) are strangely simpatico a second after they’ve just had vehement disagreement on military strategy; and the already small roles available for women in the play — Portia (Kate Paulsen) and Calpurnia (Bridgette Hayes) — are whittled down.
To be fair, D’Ambrosio’s cutting also incorporates a clever meta-theatrical move: here the Soothsayers (Lindsay Eagle and Anneke Reich) read off stage entrances and mark the passage of time between scenes, an approach that suggests that their famous warning “Beware the Ides of March” comes from reading a script the other characters do not have access to.
However, emphasis on plot points does not give the actors an opportunity to individualize their performances. There are a few exceptions: Tiffany Nicole Greene’s gender-swapped turn as Marc Antony is particularly strong – her delivery of the funeral oration is nimbly self-conscious and self-serving. Brooks Reeves’s Caesar, his head shaved for this role, has crafted an imperious sneer that even death can’t erase.
But if the individual members of the company are given few opportunities to shine, the ensemble does a fine job. Movement designer Shura Baryshnikov crafts effective tableaux for street scenes, pageants, and combat scenes – the fights are so stylized that they come off as metaphors for brute force rather than attempts to create convincing illusions of violence.
Julius Caesar premiered in 1599 and some scholars have speculated that it spoke to English anxieties about what would happen at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. She was elderly and had not named a successor. However, this production hammers home only one of the play’s subtexts: the craven ruling class see the people as dupes to be swayed by slick rhetoric. And that is true – Shakespeare never finds much civic wisdom in the hoi polloi. But there are elements of political principle mixed into the arrogance of the conspirators. The decision to slay Caesar stems, at least in part, from legitimate fears of tyranny. Here the explanation for the murder comes across as a cynical after-thought, more akin to how the right-wing media in our era promotes one conspiracy theory after another about President Obama (most recently, his alleged plan to invade Texas). But neither faction — high born or low — neither monarchist or republican — has a monopoly on craven cynicism.
The sonic signature of the play is defined by shouts and live drumming, alternately martial and shamanic, by the ensemble, as well as the caterwauling of the soothsayers. In an era where sound design is often prerecorded and pristine, such theatrical rawness is striking and is particularly effective during the masked dramatization of Calpurnia’s vision of the lioness. The masks are easily the most inspired part of the production’s costuming. No mask maker is listed in the playbill, so presumably they are the work of costume designer Stephanie Brownell, who is otherwise content to distinguish the upper classes from the lower classes via a lazy contrast between button-down shirts and plain white t-shirts.
Esme Allen’s scenic design dictates the visual vocabulary of the production. Her Rome is represented by three elevated platforms, their scaffolding concealed by an assemblage of old (and in many cases broken) wooden chairs. Likewise, perhaps as a pun on the cable television series Game of Thrones and its iconic prop the “Iron Throne” (which is made of swords), the legs, spindles, stretchers, and slats of the chairs double as metaphors for Shakespeare’s swords and daggers. (Perhaps the conceit was inspired by ideas currently en vogue in German ‘visual’ theater or the use of found objects by the iconoclastic Polish director and designer Tadeusz Kantor. Or maybe it is a nod to “The Empire of Chairs” from a 1993 issue of Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s surreal cult superhero comic book, Doom Patrol.)
With Julius Caesar, Bridge Repertory shows that it can assemble a strong ensemble and put together a memorable sensory experience, as the troupe did with last season’s gorgeously decadent production of Stephen Jeffreys’ The Libertine. But the company still needs to pay as much attention to the demanding complexities of story as it does to the allure of spectacle if it wants to make its mark on Boston’s theater scene.
The May 17 matinée of Julius Caesar was followed by a roughly twenty-minute long set of improv comedy featuring Jackie Arko, Rachel Klein, and Jeff Perry of Fine Line Comedy. The trio performed a stream-of-consciousness parody of Julius Caesar that included references to the Bridge Rep production. The trio’s deft interplay was quick-witted and suitably ridiculous.
Theater has a venerable history of plays performed alongside their own parodies, from the satyr plays that followed performances of Greek tragedies to the anti-masques of courtly pageants – perhaps this is a tradition worth reviving, especially with shorter plays or as a mischievous end to ten-minute play festivals.
Beware the Eyes of Marc.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.