And to the Republic: The Roman Plays Reconstructed
Parable of a 44 B.C. Coup in Rome
Played Out in A.D. 2014 Washington
The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project, The Workshop Theatre, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, June 7, 2014, Third row in studio theater
Adapted and Directed by Geordie Broadwater
I don't remember exactly what I was doing on August 10, 1974. I know what I was not doing. I was not hiding in the basement. I was not avoiding marauding militia masquerading as law enforcement. I was not glued to the TV wondering what would become of us and our nation. My father was in the Air Force, and he didn't go to work that day because it was a Saturday—he and his colleagues had not been thrust into internecine warfare. I don't think he was even on alert that day, even though the nation was going through a constitutional crisis and an unelected vice president was suddenly our new president.
Brutus (Tom Schwans, left) with Cassius (Jacques Roy) standing beside him announces on national TV that they have assassinated President Caesar as, to the right, Antony (Jordan Reeves) and Cleopatra (Tiffany Baker) watch the broadcast in The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project's And to the Republic at the Workshop Theatre in New York. Photo by Debby Goldman, The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project.
The day before, Richard Nixon resigned and handed power over to Gerald Ford, whom Nixon had months earlier appointed to fill out the term of the resigned vice president, Spiro Agnew. Our government used the Constitution to manage these political crises, and the United States of America carried on with hardly a blip: the biggest news of the day was what President Ford had for breakfast. In the millenniums-long annals of mankind and civilization, this counts as a miracle, but to us it was just another day. Could Nixon have attempted a coup? He was commander in chief of the military so, um, yeah. Could the Democratic Party–controlled Congress have fomented a rebellion? With some of the subversive tactics the Nixon administration used in its overreach of power, that would have been one logical option. But we as a nation, from leaders on down, put our faith in a piece of paper, and we as a nation triumphed.
How close were we to faltering? After all, this came just a little over 100 years from the one time individual political and geographical interests got the better of national unity. How close are we now, in 2014, to faltering?
That is the question New York's Guerrilla Shakespeare Project asks, using William Shakespeare to provide a potential scenario. And to the Republic mixes and matches passages and characters from Shakespeare's Roman plays—plus bits and pieces of other Shakespeare works—to depict patriotic ideology colliding with political expediency in today's media-driven, schismatic society. This mash-up fits Shakespeare's characters into a new storyline interspersed with broadcasts of cast members playing cable news talking heads (all speaking Shakespeare lines, too).
One could ask, why the mash-up? Shakespeare's plays in themselves have obvious relevance to modern American politics. Last year's Gregory Doran–helmed Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar set in Africa brought home the timeless quality of Shakespeare's portrayal of coup politics and personal ambition wrapped in ideological clothing. Ralph Fiennes' film version of Coriolanus is set in the war-torn Balkans of the 1990s while the cable news channel aesthete of that production clearly links the political elements of the play to the political landscapes of Great Britain and the United States.
And to the Republic adapter and director Geordie Broadwater, though, isn't looking for allusion; he wants depiction. He seeks to present the whole of the D.C. political scene by combining in one play the conspiracy and rhetorical elements of Julius Caesar, the political maneuvering and fickle electorate of Coriolanus, and the personality conflicts and sex of Antony and Cleopatra. The lines are hodgepodged in to suit Broadwater's purposes rather than maintaining fealty to Shakespeare's portrayals.
Shakespeare's characters are translated into specific American government archetypes in And to the Republic. We never see nor hear Caesar, but he is the president who, saddled with a Congress too divided to get things done, resorts to executive orders. As his approval ratings soar while the Senate's hit new lows, President Caesar prepares to make a major policy address on March 15, with speculation rampant that he will instigate further expansion of executive powers. Brutus (Tom Schwans) is Caesar's vice president and a longtime advocate of the separation of powers as laid out by the Founding Fathers, but he is keeping quiet on President Caesar's actions. Cassius (Jacques Roy) is the speaker of the House, increasingly alarmed by the president's growing power.
All of this is explained in the play program as a news article in The Roman Times. For the other players, faux magazine covers in the theater lobby clue us in to their personas and positions of power. Forum magazine features Octavius (Jordan Kaplan), "The man behind the president," ostensibly the chief of staff. PQ, the Patrician Quarterly, has a feature on Marc Antony (Jordan Reeves), the "Bad-boy" brother to the president. Roman Housekeeping features the vice president's wife, Portia (Madeleine Maby) and her campaign for early childhood literacy. And, fittingly, the fashion magazine Sphynx has Cleopatra (Tiffany Baker), the First Lady who is "the glass of fashion." She also is having a torrid sexual affair with her brother-in-law Antony, though the tabloids apparently haven't gotten hold of that news yet.
Brooklyn Praxis' set is three walls of various-sized panels in blue wood frames around a bare stage containing just a narrow table on wheels and two metal frame chairs. The panels in the walls open up to become props—Antony and Cleopatra's red-satin-sheet bed, Octavius's bookcase, Brutus's bar, a prison bed—while the table transitions into use as a desk and podium. Lea Reeves' costumes are K Street fashionable, the men in suits with subtle touches (an American flag pin on Cassius's lapel), Portia in conservative mother's fashion, and Cleopatra in black cocktail dresses (or lingerie in the bedroom).
The first half of the 100-minute play (with no intermission) gives us an updated version of Caesar's assassination, and Broadwater and company manage to maintain as much tension in the telling as Shakespeare does in his original, with the added mystery of wondering just how the vice president and speaker of the House will pull off the murder. They do so in private, and then announce together what they have done (Cassius's hand on Brutus's shoulder) in a broadcast as Antony and Cleopatra (together in bed), Octavius, and Portia watch their televisions—and react according to their characters—on different areas of the stage.
In this scene, the play's visual and performance qualities hit their climax. The TVs that the characters watch are a light above our heads (lighting design by Melissa Mizell), and so the actors are staring out over the audience as they follow the broadcasts. As Brutus and Cassius announce the president's murder, Maby's Portia watches in shock at what her husband has done, so against his oath of duty, Kaplan's Octavius watches almost indifferently and already considering a necessary next step, and Reeves' Antony watches in puzzled anger. The expression on Cleopatra's face secures Baker a place among actresses capably playing Shakespeare's most enigmatic female character: sadness at losing her husband, relief at losing her husband (as she's currently in bed with Antony), worry over what's next for her, questioning over what's next for her country, and calculating. She understands immediately that she has both public and private powers she must somehow maintain.
The second half of And to the Republic gets a bit confusing. Brutus and Cassius are arrested and spend the rest of the play in prison. Antony, who never got along with Octavius, tries to maneuver his own power play, whereupon Octavius televises evidence of the late president's brother's trysts with the late president's wife and then links Antony to the conspiracy. This leads to a shoot-out outside the apartment he shares with Cleopatra. Octavius then tries to maneuver Cleopatra into supporting him and his policies. Portia, meanwhile, becomes the go-between in negotiations.
That last is indicative of an aspect of And to the Republic that the play's own construction has difficulty navigating; the hodgepodge nature of the line's assignments to specific characters not only create departures from Shakespeare's original characterizations but establish seeming inconsistencies in their portrayals. Portia starts out as Shakespeare's dutiful wife to Brutus (but without slicing open her thigh), then transitions into the character of naïve Octavia from Antony and Cleopatra with a little Desdemona from Othello thrown in (the play inserts the scene in which Desdemona and Emilia discuss men, with Baker's Cleopatra taking on Emilia's cynical observations). Antony, too, becomes three characters, speaking the "cry havoc" speech in one instance and being chastised by Cleopatra a la Volumnia to Coriolanus in the next, while Octavius's references to Lepidus in Julius Caesar are here applied to Antony. Brutus and Cassius get twisted up in each other's lines. Cassius seeks to awaken Brutus (and uses text messages instead of planting notes) to the dangers of Caesar, but suddenly it is Brutus instigating Cassius to action. In her closing press conference appearance, Cleopatra jumps from Antony's funeral speech in Julius Caesar to the tribunes in Coriolanus and then to Coriolanus himself denouncing Rome.
Then again, Broadwater may not be trying to fudge the differences in these characters so much as pointing to their similarities. Are Brutus and Cassius in Shakespeare's original as different in their ethical foundations as they are in their temperaments? (And just how different are those temperaments, as illustrated in the original play's tent scene?) Is Antony a forerunner of Coriolanus, the stubborn warrior who fails to realize that what works in combat doesn't work in politics? Did the King's Men actor who had graduated from Shakespeare's great comedic heroines to play Cleopatra further grow into the role of Volumnia? Or Coriolanus, for that matter?
You could also question the play's lack of fealty to constitutional process. True, Vice President Brutus and Speaker Cassius would likely not be allowed to succeed the president they assassinated, and their incarceration even before trial makes sense, but next in line to the presidency is the president pro tempore of the Senate, then the secretary of state, and on to other cabinet members. Unlike the Octavius in Shakespeare's plays, Kaplan's version is more a chief of staff and political advisor, a puppet master who becomes master without puppets. It seems at first blush a stretch that he could end up officially running the country. Then we remember that Alexander Haig, then secretary of state (but before that Nixon's and Ford's chief of staff), claimed to be "in control here" upon the wounding of President Ronald Reagan in an assassination attempt. However much his statement might have been taken out of context, when in that press conference he described the succession of authority, he skipped over the two members of Congress legally established in 1947 as next in line. Even just that slight suggestion of a coup unnerved Americans.
First Lady Cleopatra (Tiffany Baker) weighs next steps in the aftermath of Preident Caesar's assassination as the president's brother Antony (Jordan Reeves), with whom Cleopatra has been having an affair, sleeps off a drunken stupor in And To The Republic. Photo by Debby Goldman, The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project.
That is the ultimate merit of this well-acted and intellectually delivered exercise transitioning Shakespeare's words from his political tragedies into a modern-day parable, legitimately posing the possibility that Brutus, Cassius, and Octavius could happen here and now. The United States has had only one incident that comes close to an all-out coup, when conspirators set out to kill the president and the next two in line. The conspiracy failed to achieve its larger purpose when the assassin assigned to the vice president got too drunk to carry out the deed, and the secretary of state miraculously survived his brutal attack; only President Abraham Lincoln was killed. I'm not sure we want to speculate on how the nation might have handled the constitutional crisis if the plot had succeeded, especially as it was just months into emerging from the Civil War.
Yes, that was one hundred years ago. And, yes, a hundred-plus-some years later, we witnessed a peaceful transition of power from an elected president and vice president to an unelected president and vice president, a power hand-off some other societies considered different from a coup only in the lack of military action, bloodshed, and imprisonment of the previous leader.
But take note: In the decade before the Watergate scandal brought down Nixon, the radical left was using terrorism to press its ideology and the government was using armed troops to quell public protests. Over the past couple of decades, it has been the radical right using terrorism to press its ideology and the government has been using subterfuge to police free speech. The Nixon resignation came between these two eras, when the nation was eschewing the fringes and coalescing on a middle lane. Today, the ideological divide is more intense; fears of a Caesar-like move toward autocracy are sincerely felt; a fickle populous is more easily influenced by talking-head rhetoric; and the threat of violence ever hangs over our heads from the radical right.
You know, maybe I was just lucky on August 10, 1974, after all.
June 12, 2014