Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Julius Caesar (St. Ann's Warehouse/Donmar Theatre)

"Think you I am no stronger than my sex?"
asks Brutus' wife ironically
in an all-female Julius Caesar
Phyllida Lloyd, working with the Donmar Theatre, has cast Julius Caesar entirely with women, and justifies this casting (as if she needed to!) by setting the play in a women’s penitentiary. Her vision contains a beautiful irony: that Brutus and his fellows conspire to live freely though they’re incarcerated. Her Rome is Darwinistic, with its embodiment Caesar at the apex of the hierarchy. But it’s inaccurate to say that in Lloyd’s staging, Rome’s a prison. After Caesar’s assassination, he continues to lurk about the stage; then some of the convicts break character; finally, as Octavius assumes power, “Caesar” stops the show, pulls out her warden’s cap, and orders the prisoners back to their cells. The whole show has actually been a cruel prison game. The inmates can play at killing Caesar, but only as a lesson that they can’t escape what he represents—absolute authority.

Lloyd’s concept could work just as well with an all-male cast, of course. But the women’s prison has an alienating quality that a men’s prison wouldn’t. The artifice of masculinity that most of these women adopt (think Snoop on The Wire) undermines the Roman and Elizabethan definitions of manhood that our culture still presumes are natural. Plus, it gives some incredible actors the chance to play juicy roles that would conventionally be denied to them.

Harriet Walter plays Brutus,
and Brutus is an honorable woman
Harriet Walter, who ruled Broadway as Queen Elizabeth in Lloyd's Mary Stuart a few years ago, navigates smartly her character’s early monologues. Shakespeare’s Brutus uses pretty specious logic to convince himself of Caesar’s ambition; Walter turns this into a tragic lack of self-knowledge, as her Brutus recognize that he’s duping himself. She and Lloyd lean hard on Brutus’ claims of Justice to defend the assassination, another irony given the setting.

Frances Barber outdoes her and everyone as Caesar (she played the eye-patched baby-napper on Doctor Who); she's an electrifying, bullying ranter with a muscular plug of a body and a great swaggering entrance. But then every performance here uncovers facets of the characters that rarely get explored, like Antony’s arc of growth from callow lieutenant to Caesar’s true heir, or Cassius’s kingmaker maneuvering. In the latter role, Jenny Jules has great chemistry with Walter, especially in those lovely late scenes of argument and camaraderie.

Frances Barber plays a particularly
thuggish Caesar
Like many British directors of Shakespeare (but not most American ones), Lloyd reads her play carefully and thinks out every moment. Her show opens before the play itself, with a lecture from the guards as the audience waves our tickets like security passes. Searchlights are used as spotlights, with the crew dressed in guards’ uniforms. That and the large dark warehouse space gives a real sense of conspiracy to the opening scenes. The music doesn’t really fit with the show’s concept—the soothsayer gets accompanied by a calliope organ; a punk guitar’s thrashing underscores the civil war/prison riot—but it’s appropriate to Shakespeare’s Rome. Like most productions of Julius Caesar, Lloyd doesn’t quite fulfill the play’s tragic aims. Unlike most, it does offers several stunning theatrical coups instead, climaxing with that hammer-blow of an ending.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The All-Male Casting Tradition of Will Shakespeare

This isn't Mark Rylance as Richard Crookback
This week, a pair of Shakespeare productions start performances in repertory on Broadway. Mark Rylance leads the company, playing Richard Crookback in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfe Night (sic—the Folio spelling!). He's not the only one playing a female role, either; the entire company is male. The absence of women is justified by a concept called “original practices”, which Rylance pioneered as the Artistic Director at the Globe in London. The retro impulse drove the company to build its theater according to Elizabethan construction (where allowed by modern fire-codes) and hand-stitch costumes together out of period textiles! It's an incredible place to see Shakespeare's work, especially when Rylance was onstage, and teaches the lover of Shakespeare, or of theater generally, a great deal about his dramaturgy, which is still so central to modern theater.

But any claims that “original practices” makes to artistic fidelity are obviated by 350 years of tradition and cultural drift. We’re so far removed from what Shakespeare meant by “male” that an “all-male” cast doesn’t possess any intrinsic verisimilitude. Anyway, contemporary troupes like this Broadway company tend to ignore the fact that, in Elizabethan theater, the female roles weren’t played by men, they were filled by young adolescents. It wasn’t exactly drag in the modern sense either, but it was a theatrical artifice that required specialized training.

I don’t mean to say that all-male cast can’t bring a new perspective to one of the plays. About a decade ago, I saw an all-male Taming of the Shrew staged at BAM by Edward Hall’s Propeller company. Casting a man as Kate allowed, in a nearly literal sense, the director to pull no punches. The relationship between Petruchio and Kate was more knockabout, seemingly less inhibited. Testosterone gave the production a locker-room quality, where hazing and roughhousing has an undercurrent of primate hierarchy. Perhaps with women in the role, some feminist impulse or latent sense of chivalry had kept most productions from admitting how violent the taming could get, or had subverted it in the name of modernity. Hall’s Taming, however, was violent and dark, reframing Shakespeare's attitudes for a modern audience.

In that case, an all-male cast added something valuable to the show beyond the gimmick. But more often, the concept has a whiff of boys-club exclusivity. Rose Rage, Propeller’s otherwise excellent adaptation of the three parts of Henry VI felt that way; there was no reason to cast a man as Margaret of Anjou (aside from the talent of the performer in a very memorable part). Similarly, Rylance’s original Twelfth Night at the Globe, back in 2002, failed to capitalize on the meta-dramatic kink of men-as-girls. The “original practices” conceit is no less artificial than any revival 400 years after its premiere. The boy who originally played Viola—and probably Rosalind and Portia too—has disappeared along with his name and his acting tradition.

But Twelfth Night does bring up one crucial facet of Elizabethan dramaturgy: those cross-dressing heroines. Shakespeare plays deliberately with irony when he has a boy play a girl disguised as a boy (especially in As You Like It, where actor/Rosalind/Ganymede roleplays as Rosalind, adding another level of cross-gender masquerade). Most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries did little with the device; Ben Jonson’s Epicene, for example, treats it with sniggering sexism. But Shakespeare elevated his female roles by lending them the pubescent actor’s incipient masculinity. His heroines, both comic and tragic, possess an autonomy that lays just below the surface even when they’re in gowns. The all-male cast is intrinsically part of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, but it’s deep in the bedrock, unseen. A modern all-male production can excavate the playwright’s rich approach to gender onstage, but it has to work carefully and imaginatively.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: Romeo and Juliet (Broadway)

Aside from Orlando Bloom on the marquee, the most notable feature of the 2013 Broadway Romeo and Juliet—the one that you should know before you see it—is that director David Leveaux and his casting director (J.V. Mercanti) have cast black actors in the Capulet roles and white ones to play the Montagues. This addition of melanin to Shakespeare’s tragedy is clever, albeit in a juvenile way. It suggests that Leveaux wants to use Shakespearean drama at least partly to give perspective on current events. Presumably he’s thinking about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the arrest of Cornel West, the stop-and-frisk policies of Mayor Bloomberg, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Civil Rights Act, and indeed the whole Republican Party’s stance towards President Obama.

His concept could work if it were rooted in a mythic approach to the play. In that case, the catharsis would serve as a promise of, or even just a plea for, a way forward from the turbulence of our current state of affairs. But Leveaux basically ignores the setting except as it affects the lovers’ selves and the basic mechanics of plot. This Verona is abstract, little more than atmosphere, and any specificity gets credited to Shakespeare. There’s no sense that the marriage of Juliet to Romeo might have healed the civil wound, nor that their double-suicide will purge the body politic.

In its defense, this R&J does involve
a mixed-race couple, which is still
taboo on many stages
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

Instead, Leveaux’s production is interested in how passion affects the two lovers. One of its strongest and best attributes is its sense of momentum: a heavily-edited script delivers the play in 150 minutes (plus intermission). Scenes follow one another without pause, actors enter on their colleagues’ heels. It’s especially striking how the action occurs within a week’s time, maybe as short as four days. Though Leveaux cuts plenty from the script, he (and maybe an uncredited dramaturg) retains its careful marking of day and night. In this version, the lovers see death as a means to gain eternity, to stop time.

But the hurried pace ends up serving the show poorly. Romeo opens the play mooning over another woman, applying the formulaic terms of love poetry. But in the role, Bloom delivers only the gist of the poetry. This means that his expressions of depth and grandeur sound little different from the verse he’d rattled off earlier. Similarly, Condola Rashad’s Juliet starts the play wide-eyed, writing “na├»ve” so broadly the balconies can read it. But she doesn’t show how her feelings grow more mature over the play’s passage. Rashad’s J is one who makes that choice because it’s what she’s read in books, not because she’s the embodiment of the tale. That’s a tragedy, but it’s not as rich or complex as the one Shakespeare wrote of a girl who becomes a woman and who chooses love over life knowingly. Leveaux and company hurry past any nuance, delivering a production that's accessible but shallow, pretty but unmoving.