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Friday, May 27, 2011

OSF 2011: a great Caesar

[Note: When I saw this production a second time I liked it even better; see that post here]
Saw this one recently. I had some reservations about some aspects of the production, but overall it caught and held my interest and left me with a lot to think about...

Starting with the most obvious departure from "tradition", and the first thing everyone remarks on, Vilma Silva plays Caesar. The casting of a woman in the role worked to focus my mind on issues of leadership and the theater of politics, rather than (as this play  has always struck me, before) on patriarchy as such. True, it's still about despotism, war, power politics -- but these days, when the ruling class grooms and uses high-profile women so skillfully in masking, and carrying out, their agendas (think Condoleeza Rice, Sarah Palin, and their ilk) it seems right that the play is no longer just about a bunch of men maneuvering in a male preserve of political power. In this female Caesar, a woman is at the top of the heap (and believably so, as played by Silva)--and other women are cast, as well, in some of the usually male roles among the conspirators. That feels right, too; so when Caesar is assassinated, it isn't about males ganging up on a woman, because women are distributed throughout the adversarial groups.

This slant on gender works as well on another level, in the treatment of the traditionally female roles (the wives of Caesar and Brutus):  Calpurnia is eliminated, and her lines conflated with those of Mark Anthony, as Caesar's closest ally, and the chemistry works beautifully well to sharpen the focus on the nexus of personal and political. After this, Calpurnia will probably feel like one character too many, when I see the play again in the future. As for Portia, her big speech to hubby Brutus about being only-a-woman, but surely one worthy of inclusion in his larger world on account of her hereditary alliance with power (and, as her speech demonstrates, her evident personal talent for it), works to underscore the effect of the other women participating more actively in the conspiracy. Very interesting!

In short the gender-reallocating aspects of the production served to bring something new and very meaningful to me to a play I thought I already knew rather well. But more important, this production finds no heroes and takes no sides. Caesar, like so many successful politicians, is a sort of blank screen reflecting all the things her supporters and detractors claim her to be. The text is steeped in irony, and this production plays that as the strongest theme. With no Caesar, Brutus, or Mark Anthony chosen by a director to admire, it is clearly a tragedy of wrong turnings in all the characters, from beginning to end. As it should be: what is admirable in war, civil strife, betrayal, assassination? Shakespeare clearly doesn't find it. Or at least, it seems more clear to to me than ever, after seeing this production.

Another thing that distinguishes this production is that it seeks, and largely succeeds, to include the audience in the story; this is appropriate, of course, given the text's emphasis on theatricality (Pompey's theatre; orations to the citizens; etc, throughout--one thinks of Fox News)--and in a modern, self-referential way, the theatrical setting of the play-about-the theater of politics.

In fact the audience is drawn into the spirit of the thing even before entering the theatre: the courtyard and lobbies are jam-packed with banners observing various acts of political assassination. They look like the crudest sort of graffiti and have no consistency, in that some highlight the reasons given for the murders while others highlight the accomplishments of the murdered; it's all mixed up. Which is also brought out in the play--that all these political motives of conspirators, and beliefs about the character of the politicians, are questionable and perhaps even impossible to fully nail down.

Outside the New Theatre. Thanks to fellow blogger
reviewer for this photo:

And then, before the play begins, the actors warm up the audience with a round of cheers for Caesar, casting us as Plebians in the drama. The staging, in the round, involves the audience as witnesses to (and sometimes participants in) the great events as they unfold. (A good idea, that last, but it fell a little flat for me after the initial wild cheering of Caesar, because we weren't nearly as into playing the fickle mob of the funeral oration scene.) The round stage enables the cast to mingle with the audience; they sit sometimes in the front row, and occasionally call for responses. The round staging is also effective in placing some of the action off-stage, as actors move around the back behind the bleachers, talking all the while, and then back onto the stage at another point. 

But I had a little trouble keeping all the minor characters sorted out, and this made things murky for me in places. On the small stage there was a great deal of running about, and because most actors played several parts, it did get confusing for me even though I knew the play (more on this later). The costumes didn't do much to sort things out for me, either. Caesar, of course, stood out, in white robes (the closest thing to a "toga" and the better to show blood), and Brutus was nice in a kind of post-apocalyptic kilt-with-leggings affair. The Soothsayer was unmistakeable in what looked like a shower curtain. Cassius was conspicuous in the last scenes, in a battle vest that resembled a suicide bomber's (a nice touch, considering his end). But most of the actors were wearing such a ragtag assortment of bits and pieces--strangely cut hemlines and big, dirty canvas cloaks and all manner of weird oddments, all in the same somber colors-- that they tended to blend together into a kind of overcooked bean stew, in my eyes.
[Update: when I saw the play again, I liked the costumes very much. Maybe because I was sitting closer and could see the details better.]

I'm sure there was a point being made here that, like the crude graffiti banners, signalled something like... what... disintegration of society; mob rule; near-future Mad Max minus the leather and metal? Urban streetwise edginess? And that is what the play is about, I know. So, the visual style is a conceit that makes sense but it worked against the words, for me. Ultimately my chief impression about the staging was one of frenetic action, with a large cast milling about on a small stage, in the round, most of them looking pretty much the same amid the visual murk of the monochromatic design. Maybe it was brilliant; who am I to say; but somehow the structure of the play was lost, for me, in the confusion. I wonder how it seemed to someone not already familiar with the play.
[Update: when I saw the play a second time, the movement made sense to me and worked dramatically. Maybe because of where I was sitting?]

The round staging did make for some great battle scenes, though. They were nicely choreographed, and appropriately disturbing (loud striking staves and metal music) in a way that crystallized the whole spirit of the play. On the other hand, I do wish OSF would reconsider its habit of shining spotlights into my eyes. I've been to several plays where that happened at some point, and it always jerks me right out of the play. 

Anthony Heald
One actor who really shone in the multiple-small-character department was, not surprisingly, Anthony Heald. It was fun to see him create entirely distinct characters with just a few lines. There was no confusion there. It was a particularly nice touch that he was cast both as Cicero and as Cinna, two intellectuals--one a patrician orator, the other an unworldly poet-- innocent of the conspiracy but both victims of  the resulting fray (one killed by Senators, the other by Plebeians). 

Danforth Comins
Jonathan Haugen
And certain other performers and moments stood out wonderfully too, and stick in my memory. The big speeches of Brutus and Antonius were brilliantly performed and seemed freshly minted. Danforth Comins is fabulously ambiguous as Mark Anthony. Brutus is richly rendered by Jonathan HaugenVilma Silva is very fine as the powerful but enigmatic Caesar. And as I said, Anthony Heald shines in his bouquet of cameos.

All in all... well worth seeing. Now that I think of it - I'd like to see it again.  I liked it, and I'll probably like it even better next time.

I do have to add one thing here. Not sure where this fits in with this review, but in this production one speech just knocked me out:
....How many ages hence 
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
In the play, in its scene's context, the lines were as ironic as the triumphant shouts of liberty! and freedom!, yet still -- how visionary. I can't help feeling Shakespeare knew what he was doing, embedding that nugget for future generations to marvel over. He was a time-traveler.

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