Burying Caesar in Hubris
Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, November 2, 2014, G-1&2 (center stalls)
Directed by Robert Richmond
When we park our car, literally, in front of the nation's Capitol on East Capitol Street, walk one block to the Folger Theatre, and see Julius Caesar two days before we vote in what might be an epochal election, how can William Shakespeare's play not resonate in such a place and time?
Cassius (Louis Butelli) winds Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) into the conspiracy to kill Caesar in the Folger Theater production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Photo by Jeff Malet, Folger Theatre.
His would have.
More and more at the Folger Theatre, we come not to praise Shakespeare but to see him buried. The latest interment is Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, whom we all know is an honorable man. In 2010, Richmond turned Henry VIII into engaging theater, though he did a lot of cutting and interpolations to do so. Last year, his Henry V broke Folger box office records, though with super hunk Zach Appelman as Henry, a production of Webster's Dictionary might have achieved the same success, especially if it retained Henry's incredibly passionate courtship of Katherine played by distinctive beauty Katie deBuys. However, with that play and with all others he has done for the Folger, Richmond not only cuts and re-arranges Shakespeare's texts, he departs from Shakespeare's story arcs, characterizations, and even the plays' thematic essences in pursuit of his own fancy.
And sure he is an honorable man. I speak not to disprove what Richmond intends. But here I am, to speak what I do know: his concept for Julius Caesar is to turn Shakespeare's taut political thriller into a lethargic study of why countries wage war. With Richmond's textual cuts and staging interpolations, instead of the intense relationships, dynamic personalities, and suspenseful moments Shakespeare gave us, we get something closer to a weird Italian horror movie.
The play is set in a crypt. Tony Cisek's design features heavy stone pillars and steps leading up the back wall with a scrim behind the columns at the top. In the center of this set is what might be a pool of water (white smoke rises out of it as we enter the theater, Caesar's ghost climbs out of it later in the play). Next to this pool, a translucent bowl glows with smoking coals, and sitting on the steps in front of this bowl is the Soothsayer (Nafeesa Monroe), covered in a hooded, draping cloak. She looks like a stone statue, courtesy of Jim Hunter's exemplary lighting design.
For the play's start, the Soothsayer is joined by other such cloaked humanoid specters—I'm not sure if they are ghosts, priests, or walking dead—who move in ultraslow motion and moan in despair, anger, or hunger. They produce from their cloaks bits of red tissue that could be meant as blood but look like poppies that they scatter on the stage (in his program notes, Richmond describes how he was inspired by seeing the two million poppies at the Tower of London as part of England's commemoration of the World War I centenary). The Soothsayer remains on stage throughout the play, for she has an important, ongoing task in Richmond's version of the play. The other specters remove their cloaks, revealing themselves to be the Roman authorities in Act One, Scene Two, participating in the ceremonies of Lupercal and interrupted by the Soothsayer warning Caesar to beware the Ides of March.
Gone is Act One, Scene One, in which two tribunes berate the commoners for celebrating Caesar's triumphs before dispersing the crowd and removing the decorations from Caesar's images in the city. Admittedly, that scene has one of Shakespeare's groaniest puns, the cobbler claiming to be "a mender of bad soles," but the decision to cut the entire scene only makes sense if A), you're not doing a play about governance and the citizens' impact on the political pendulum and, B), you would rather stage a cool-looking but drowsy pageant of creepiness, instead. This production uses the ultraslow–motion creepy creatures to transition from scene to scene throughout the play, which means that much more than the opening scene gets lopped off. Yet, ironically, left in is Casca reporting to Brutus and Cassius how the two tribunes in that now-cut first scene "are put to silence" for pulling scarves off Caesar's images. With its context gone, the line loses its clout; it's just a skeleton of a notion that Caesar must be some kind of despot. Yet, in Michael Sharon's portrayal—always posturing as a proud colossus, like Henery Hawk in a Mr. Universe pageant—Caesar's despotism already is blatantly obvious in this production.
Because Richmond's sole aim with Julius Caesar is to use the play as a commentary on why we war, he apparently equates Caesar to Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I. Costume Designer Mariah Hale's Robin Hood–era Rome of the first half gives way in the second half to World War I uniforms, the battle of Philippi becomes trench warfare, and gas mask-donned soldiers moving in ultraslow motion replace the ghostly hooded specters. "Our Rome is one that moves through time," Richmond writes in his program notes, but by so clearly turning Rome into 1914 Sarajevo, he undermines, in his words, "what was important to the creative team…to tell a story with a universal message."
Shakespeare's play already has a universal message. In his Julius Caesar, power struggles arise through conflicts of politics and personality that ultimately have little to do with the well-being of the populous. The play's moral is how republics, be they Roman or English (or American), can fall into the despotic grip of individuals' political ambitions, which leads to a coup under the guise of patriotism, which leads to a new despotism that, when defeated under the guise of preserving the state, leads to yet another incarnation of despotism. Before this production's run began, the Folger made much of the fact that it was being staged just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol and opening on the eve of a national election; yet, gazing 4,000 miles distant and 100 years back, the production ends up ignoring the play's inherent geographical and temporal relevancy, and Shakespeare's fundamental themes on republicanism are smothered under Richmond's conceptual layering.
Actually, it's not Election Day but Halloween, All Souls' Day, and the Day of the Dead that seem to be the more relevant time frame for this production. The Folger Theatre has become infatuated with ghosts lately. Its staging of Romeo and Juliet a year ago saw all of the dead characters meander to an upper balcony to watch the last scenes, and Richmond's production of Richard III this past winter saw all of Richard's victims die on stage (though they don't in the text) and then ghostly descend into their graves. Now, for Julius Caesar, whenever a character dies on stage—and Richmond includes Portia (Shirine Babb) in this recurring motif—the Soothsayer scatters some of those poppy-like petals on the character, who then walks off stage or into a waiting cloak in ultraslow motion.
But the greatest ghost of all is Caesar himself, not because he is Caesar but because he has corporeal capabilities, picking up and carrying off Brutus's lantern. It doesn't make any sense at first, but this launches another bit of recurring allegorical stage business. Before the battle of Philippi, Brutus looks up to the back of the stage where we see through the scrim a shadowy figure carrying a lantern; must be Caesar. During the battle, Caesar returns to the stage, and when Brutus, upon seeing the dead Cassius (who has killed himself) cries out, "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet," Caesar lifts high the lantern he pilfered from Brutus's tent. OK, so it doesn't make much sense in the end, either.
In another recurring stage device, the characters look out over our heads to things and people who actually are on the stage behind or next to them. I know this is a common break-the-fourth-wall practice, but I've never seen it so used and abused in a single play. Brutus is looking at the theater exit when he sees Caesar's ghost, whom we see climbing out of that pool behind Brutus (Caesar's hands, wearing fingerless gloves, suddenly appearing grasping the edge of the pool's wall is the night's lone dramatic moment). Brutus and Antony deliver their funeral speeches to the theater exit, while on the opposite side of the stage Rome's citizens watch the exit, too (at one point, the rabble inexplicably lean together in one direction, reminding me of the crowd scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian). Even the ripping apart of Cinna the Poet is presented in this manner: the mob lines up at the front of the stage shouting at the theater exit while behind them, Cinna mimes being beaten on the stone stairs at the back of the stage—then, cue red petals and ultraslow–motion exit for Cinna the Poet.
The final stage effect of the night is one last visit of the cloaked souls scattering red petals on the stage while, from above, some petals float down on the audience. Does this mean we are dead, too? That's an open-ended question easily inspiring jokes about hell and purgatory and wish fulfillment. I can report that much of the audience didn't leave the theater in ultraslow motion, so we'll just have to regard that last stunt as another of Richmond's enigmatic stage allegories.
Obfuscated in this style of staging is Shakespeare's tension-filled portrait of conspiracy and counterconspiracy. Another of Richmond's notable excisions is the servant preceding Antony to appeal to the conspirators after Caesar's assassination. Again, this scene matters only if you are tracking Shakespeare's depiction of political maneuvering and Antony negotiating the dangerous post-coup landscape (and if you have the time to squeeze it in amid all the ultraslow–motion stage business). The production also trims so much from the conspirators' scenes and the lead-up to the murder (the assassination is staged in ultraslow motion, of course) that we watch inevitability unfolding rather than experience edge-of-our-seat drama. The interactions between Antony (Maurice Jones) and Octavius (JaBen Early) resemble the relationship between Dr. Huxtable and Theo rather than serving as the first fissures in a political structure that will crumble when the two turn their fangs on each other a few plays hence (in fact, Robbie Gay's Lepidus seems to be the most stalwart member of this particular triumvirate, though he appears in only a few lines of one scene—how he would lose out to this Antony and Octavius we don't dare ponder).
Louis Butelli's Cassius has the look, as Caesar describes him, of a lean and hungry man, and he has that attitude, too, in the play's first half. This is a most intelligent and observant Cassius as he winds Brutus into the conspiracy, and he quickly becomes frustrated as Brutus takes command of the conspiracy and immediately puts it on dubious footing. By the tent scene, though, Butelli's Cassius has become little more than a whiner, and when Brutus accuses him of bribery and refusing him aid, Butelli looks like a found-out kid about to explode, "I didn't mean to hurt anybody!" Anthony Cochrane brings his tremendous verse-speaking skills to the part of Brutus, but with so many cuts to the role and the production's pedantic pacing, this Brutus doesn't have enough depth to convince us why the conspirators should follow him despite his dunderhead decisions. Because of these portrayals, the tent scene between Cassius and Brutus relies on physical action—Brutus holding a knife to Cassius's throat—to achieve anything close to the intensity I've seen much more effectively rendered when the mere dialogue alone is spoken by a Brutus whose blind sense of patriotism and honor has turned him despotic and a Cassius who, though vastly more experienced at waging war, anchors his bobbing self-esteem to Brutus.
Caesar's Ghost (Michael Sharon) takes hold of the lantern sitting in the tent of Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) before walking out with the promise of meeting again at Philippi. Caesar, lantern in hand, keeps his promise in the Robert Richmond–helmed Folger Theatre production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Teresa Wood, Folger Theatre.
Two bit players make a bigger impact on the play. Although Casca's part, like the rest, is a victim of cuts, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh plays him as a proud man who yet licks his finger to monitor the prevailing political winds. Instead of making Casca a comic character, Ebrahimzadeh makes him a dramatic character speaking comic lines, garnering genuine laughs—even in his delivery of the over-worn "it was Greek to me" joke—and achieving relatable humanity (though it should be noted that much of Casca's frightened behavior during the vicious storm has been cut, too, lines that tend to portray Casca as a sniveling wimp). Ebrahimzadeh also turns in a keenly observant Messala in the play's second half.
Then there's Lucius. Quick, who's Lucius? He's the servant boy in the Brutus household. His part in the second half has been fused with that of Lucilius and Strato (the servant who helps Brutus to a shower of red petals and ultraslow–motion exit), a casting decision with a great payoff in the performance of William Vaughan. His Lucius is in his late teens and therefore shows a combination of courtesy and cockiness—and a propensity for sleeping. Every middle-age father in the room knows this kid. Not only does his attitude play off well against both Brutus ("I was sure your lordship did not give it me," he says when Brutus finds his book in his own coat pocket) and Portia ("Madam, what should I do? Run to the Capitol, and nothing else? And so return to you, and nothing else?"), Vaughan's Lucius displays Shakespeare's skills at writing vivid characters for even minor roles and gives this production a much-needed shot of relevance and enthusiasm. There's no ultraslow motion in a 19-year-old; they are either existing in hyperirony or asleep.
I had long disliked Julius Caesar, dating back to when I had to study it in high school English. I always considered it a laborious, rhetorical play, and every production I saw confirmed my opinion. But after we saw a string of productions in the past couple of years—the American Shakespeare Center's original-practices version, the Royal Shakespeare Company's modern Africa version, and the Donmar Warehouse's women's prison version—I've come to not only appreciate the play's dramatic intensity and psychological thriller attributes, but also regard Julius Caesar as one of Shakespeare's most timeless masterpieces, relevant to all societies, all days. This production, though, needs an archaeologist to unearth any of that, and, though clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes plus intermission, is beyond laborious.
November 4, 2014
Hi, Mr. Minton,
I enjoyed your review of the Folger's Julius Caesar. Although I'm not familiar with this production, your critique is familiar. But the problems you find in this particular show are symptoms; the cause, I (and others) argue, is the modern theater's "falsely obvious" perception that the director is central to the creative process. Do you know Hollis Huston's book The Actor's Instrument? If you'll wade through Huston's post-modern poetics, you'll find a profound statement of the reasons we end up with muddled stage productions. As Huston writes of the equally falsely obvious need for orchestra conductors: "the conductor organizes sound in a state whose citizens have forgotten how to breathe." The actor is, or should be, the creative force. Why—and why particularly in a free state—did we feel the need to bow to the authority of a director? We have a rather impoverished conception of freedom, don't we?
Here's how I would do Shakespeare: find the smartest people I know, give each of them a script to learn, then put them on an undecorated platform and let them work.
November 18, 2014
Dear Mr. Gannaway,
Very interesting comment on Eric Minton's review of Julius Caesar at the Folger. I did happen to see this production, and agree with Eric: The director focused on pageantry and lost the drama. Real stage action isn't about lighting and costumes and sound effects; it's about the interpersonal conflicts played out among the characters. If those conflicts come alive, everything else is secondary. If they don't, the stage effects get tedious—as did this production of Julius Caesar, in my opinion.
As to how you would do Shakespeare: In a few months, you'll have an opportunity to see just what you describe. At the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., the Actor's Renaissance Season, every January through April, sets a talented ensemble of actors loose on the texts. Without directors, designers, stage lighting, or scenery, these actors bring those texts to full-blooded life, and the results are usually stupendous. Check it out.
November 21, 2014