In February of 2008 the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts presented Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Arthur Nauzyciel. For those unfamiliar with the American Repertory Theatre, a brief description is in order.
As its acronym ART indicates, it is a noncommercial theatre dedicated to art. The kind of art the theatre produces and its worth has been a question since the ART’s arrival in Cambridge in 1980. For most of that time, its artistic director was Robert Brustein who was at once conservative and experimental in his tastes. Under his helm, the ART presented classics old and modern, generally those familiar to his public, as well as the occasional new work. Debut plays were often relegated to a second stage where their performances were given lower production values. On the main stage, Ibsen, Shaw, Pirandello, Strindberg, Beckett and other stalwarts of the modern drama anthology reigned supreme. Shakespeare and Molière were the most frequent representatives of the older classical repertoire.
What made the theatre experimental was its commitment to prominent, innovative, and international directors, many of whom were and are on the leading edge. In its heyday, the ART was able to offer its audiences the work of Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban, Lee Breuer, Peter Sellars, JoAnne Akalitis, to name only a few. Thus, the ART was always a director’s theatre rather than a playwright’s or an actor’s. Their productions, while not consistently successful, generated excitement, if only because they were controversial.
In 2002 Robert Brustein stepped down and was replaced by Robert Woodruff, a younger and more radically innovative director. Before becoming artistic director, he had proven himself to Brustein, the administration, and the board through his staging of three diverse and powerful productions at the ART. However, what initially seemed a perfect fit turned out to be uncomfortable for all concerned. On the surface, Woodruff did not stray too far from the model laid down by Brustein. While Woodruff was far more involved in directing for the ART, imported high-status directors continued to play a prominent role. He visited the classics, although frequently less traditional ones such as Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and staged modern works, sometimes a little more contemporary than his predecessor’s, a case in point being Edward Bond’s Olly’s Prison. Under his aegis, the ART took the risk of producing four premieres: Charles Mee’s Snow in June (2004); The Keening by Humberto Dorado (2005), and in 2006, Wings of Desire, an adaptation of Wim Wenders’ film, and The Onion Cellar, a musical collective creation. Woodruff’s brand of experimentation did not always pay off at the box office and he was unexpectedly fired in 2007.
The theatre, now in transition, is operating under a smaller budget with a temporary artistic director. While still interested in inventiveness, the ART has moved down a notch, opening the door to younger, less experienced directors like Arthur Nauzyciel. Nauzyciel, artistic director at the Centre National Dramatique d’Orléans, was invited to mount Julius Caesar for the 2007-08 season.
The French director’s background would seem to make him an unlikely candidate for the project. His previous productions were almost all drawn from the French repertory; he had little familiarity with Shakespeare; and his English, while conversationally fluent, would be considered by many to fall short of dealing with the complexities of Shakespeare’s language. Before beginning rehearsals, Nauzyciel read the play in French translation and used the translation along with Shakespeare’s text during early rehearsals. Perhaps the most serious obstacle for him was his ignorance of anglophone Shakespearean playing traditions. It can be dangerous to break with conventions, as Nauzyciel did, when those conventions are unknown. Other francophone directors have tread a similar path – Jean Gascon in his early years at Stratford and Michel Saint-Denis in London in the 1930s and 40s come to mind – and encountered critical hostility. Their negative reviews could be winnowed down to “this is not our Shakespeare.”
Yet Nauzyciel had been brought in to remove the accretions of time. He believed that his very foreignness was an advantage, since inevitably he would bring a fresh approach. Despite the fact that Julius Caesar is rarely performed, most Americans have read it in high school; many have had to memorize Mark Antony’s (James Waterston) funeral oration and likely have seen the 1953 film in class. Gideon Lester, the acting artistic director, made it clear that it was just this version replete with togas that had to be discarded.
In his initial stages of preparation for any production, Nauzyciel searches for a link between the text and the place it is to be performed. Cambridge, just across the river from Boston , home of the Kennedy family is connected to presidential politics. 2008 is the year of the next presidential election in the U.S. Julius Caesar is a play about a political assassination. Setting it in the 1960s would contemporize the play and make it more relevant to its Boston/Cambridge audience. In theory, this is an attractive idea, in practice, it is hard to realize. Would the spectators be touched by or even grasp the connection? Did Nauzyciel understand his American audience? Was this a reading of the material that might have succeeded better in France ?
Indeed, Nauzyciel’s production was reminiscent of French mid-twentieth-century nouvelle vague film (particularly those of Alain Resnais), the nouveau roman, and the nouveau théâtre. What they have in common is an interest in ambiguity, formalism, disjointedness, and an anti-realist approach, which includes the elimination of traditional character and narrative, as well as a resistance to offering a definitive meaning. Nauzyciel too resisted any single or even collective interpretation by creating simultaneous multiple worlds onstage through the performers, settings, and sound design.
The décor, whose dominant colors were red, black, and white, contributed to an overall feeling of emptiness. It consisted of movable, sometimes abstract, set pieces placed within a semi-circular photographically realistic backdrop – sans audience – of the Loeb theatre itself, the home of the ART. White scrims were flown in as needed and used to delineate space in various configurations. A few pieces of modernist furniture were carried on for the domestic scenes. At the opening, the stage was foreshortened. A white scrim behind strategically placed large white panels separated by narrow passages allowed the audience to glimpse shadowy figures in the background. Flavius and Marullus entered dressed in conservative black suits looking for all the world like 1960s businessmen trying to pull off a deal at a cocktail party. The mood changed and, as the scrim rose revealing the large and almost bare ART stage, a musical trio entered stage left, crossed right and took their places on a bandstand. Caesar (Thomas Derrah), dressed in a black trench coat, like a film noir thug or political boss, entered escorted by a group of partying followers, champagne glasses in hand. Towards the conclusion of the play a large, powerful 1960s car, hood pointed downward in an unstated threat, was suddenly lowered.
The set, costumes, images, and Nauzyciel’s direction of the actors continually raised questions for the audience. What was the reproduction of the auditorium saying to an audience seated in the real auditorium? Did it signify the Roman Forum? If so, why was it empty? Was this an instance of metatheatre – “All the world’s a stage?” Was it a comment on hard times at the ART? Or all of the above? Were the business-suited characters a reference to conspiracy theories that have hovered over JFK’s assassination since 1963? Kennedy killed by corporate interests, hence the business suits? Kennedy killed by government agents? Flavius and Marullus are Roman tribunes. Was the car, hanging suspended and never referenced, another allusion to that day in Dallas ?
Further accentuating the barren atmosphere was the isolation of the characters on the almost naked stage. This production made no use of supernumeraries, leaving no rabble to rouse. At times, as he did with Brutus (Jim True-Frost)) and Cassius (Mark L. Montgomery) in the second scene, Nauzyciel placed two characters at opposite sides of the set and had them play out to the audience, rather than to each other. But they made no eye contact with the audience and did not speak directly to them. The performance projected cynicism, coolness, and often emotionlessness, creating a world where little mattered. For example, Mark Antony’s passionate (as written) funeral oration was delivered dispassionately. The lack of connection was disconcerting. Actors were discouraged from creating relationships and even character, going against their normal way of working. Nauzyciel’s disinterest in character may have led him to cast one actress as both Portia and Calpurnia (Sara Kathryn Bakker), provocatively dressed as each. The choice depersonalized them, rendering them symbols. Trophy wives? Nauzyciel regards character as a construct, which no longer has validity. “A convention of the nineteenth-century” was how he described it in an interview with me. It is this “convention,” however, along with the language that normally brings the public to Shakespeare’s plays. Can clever ideas supplant characterization?
Paradoxically, given that English is not his language, Nauzyciel’s principal concern was the text. To that end, he, the actors, and the dramaturg spent three weeks of a four-week rehearsal period at the table reading, discussing, and parsing the script. Understandably, he wanted the audience to hear the text as if for the first time, rather than letting it wash over them. Thus, his insistence on emphasizing the music of the text and the clarity of the sound of the words. An unfortunate result was the occasional declamatory speech. Nauzyciel frequently worked against the text. A case in point: Brutus remained onstage for Mark Antony’s speech, although the lines state he is leaving. Another: Julius Caesar was symbolically slain, the actors using their hands and fists in karate-like movements rather than the daggers that are mentioned. Again, why? Were these devices to keep the audience involved?
The production was rich in ideas, but fragmented as they were, few were fully realized. It took place on different stylistic planes, naturalism merging into Brechtian distancing, expressionism into hyperrealism. Props were real in some scenes – a telephone, for instance – and symbolic in others, as when Mark Antony carried a coat representing Caesar’s body. Gestures were ordinary at times, formalized at others. During one scene two actors moved in unison in a slow parodic march. An ironic depiction of Roman militarism?
The overarching metaphor/image/theme was a party. (Rome burns as Nero fiddles? Anachronistic, yes, but possible.) The jazz trio, composed of a female singer (Marianne Solivan), guitarist (Eric Hofbauer), and bassist (Blake Newman) accompanied, commented on, and entered into the action at certain moments in an over-the-top form of metatheatre. In Brechtian fashion, the songs were used to illustrate, explicate, and counterpoint the events of the play. To reinforce the 60s concept, the music was drawn from the era. Songs like Say It Isn’t So, Is That All There Is, and what could be the production’s theme song, The Party’s Over clashed with and diminished Shakespeare’s language. In a bizarre foreshadowing of the depressed Brutus’ death, Marianne Solivan, in a black lame sheath, long black gloves, lacquered hair piled high, left the bandstand to sit beside him and croon Suicide is Painless, the theme song from Mash. The singer’s talent notwithstanding, this juxtaposition turned the scene comic, evidently the director’s intention. The production finishes as it began with a party. At this one, however, the dead characters joined together in a spirited dance, an ending traditional to classical comedy. We are in the realm of the absurd.
A program note proffered another layer of meaning, the shopworn life as a dream. The audience was to imagine that the onstage events were being viewed through the eyes of Brutus’ sleeping slave. If, despite his attachment to ambiguity, Nauzyciel felt the need to explain his vision via a commentary, it appears that he did not trust his mise en scène, at least in this instance. The place to actualize theatrical ideas is the stage, not the program.
For the most part the play was interesting to watch, although the pacing was slow at the beginning. But it was the images that intrigued, not the performance of the actors. Nauzyciel deprived them of psychological characterization without giving them anything to take its place. As a spectator, I found it a cerebral rather than an emotional experience. My mind was occupied with the unanswered questions that Nauzyciel raised, so the production became a game, a quiz show that I enjoyed for what it was. In an interview, Nauzyciel commented that “the 60s were a period where the image triumphed over the word.” And despite his weeks of textual work and the clarity with which the actors spoke the lines, critical consensus was that his images undercut the text. In other words, “this was not our Shakespeare.”
Julius Caesar at the ART (American Repertory Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Arthur Nauzyciel
The American Repertory Theatre
at the Loeb Drama Center ,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Feb. 9 to March 2008
Mark Anthony: James Waterston
Marcus Brutus: Jim True-Frost
Julius Caesar: Thomas Derrah
Cassius: Mark L. Montgomery
Octavius: Thomas Kelley
Portia, Calpurnia: Sara Kathryn Bakker
Cinna: Perry Jackson
Lepidus: Will LeBow
Cicero : Jeremy Geidt
Decius Brutus: Neil Patrick Stewart
Casca: Remo Airaldi
Trebonius: Daniel Lee
Soothsayer: Kunal Prasad
Metellus Cimber: Gardiner Comfort
Lucius: Jared Craig
Additional roles played by members of the ensemble
Jazz Trio: Blake Newman, Bass; Erich Hofbauer, Guitar; Marianne Solivan, Singer
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: James Schuette
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: David Remedios
Stage Manager: Chris de Camillis
Dramaturg: Gideon Lester, Njal Mjos
Voice and Speech: Nancy Houfek
Casting: Judy Bowman Casting