Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Julius Caesar Impressions

Seeing only a couple plays annually, I consider myself an amateur theatergoer. That being said, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival appeared on our radar because of the buzz surrounding To Kill a Mockingbird. By the the time we heard the buzz and tried to buy tickets, it was sold out.

All the same, we had become enamored with the idea of a long weekend at a Bed and Breakfast in Ashland, and decided Julius Caesar would be a safe bet.

The following are my impressions (I dare not call it a review) of the 2011 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Julius Caesar in Ashland Oregon:

The Prelude

The experience begins outside as you approach the theater. The courtyard is lined with banners of political leaders who have been assassinated; priming you mentally and emotionally for the central tension of the play.

For example, one banner defiantly proclaims Abraham Lincoln as "Tyrant". But as you walk past each banners you see that, just as with the story of Julius Caesar, there are two perspectives to every political action taken. On the other side Lincolns banner, he is celebrated as the "Emancipator".

The two sided banners challenge deeply seated notions, bringing in to question the motives and consequences of ones political action, and anticipating the prophetic line that Cassius will speak; "...How many ages hence, Shall this our lofty scene be acted over; In states unborn and accents yet unknown!" (Act II Scene I Line 110-113).
The Culture of the Cast

A small anecdotal observation before the play began encapsulates the caliber of the cast.

Prior to the show the cast was out mingling with the audience. As I was observing the personalities of different cast members I curiously noticed their affections being poured over one actress in particular. A steady stream of cast members found her, embracing and kissing her, lavishing her in praise.

This clicked for me after it was announced at the beginning that she was filling in for another actor.

In the time leading up to the show, when apprehension would be at it's peak, she never had a moment alone in her thoughts to dwell on the pressure of being thrown in as a substitute. The cast tangibly communicated that they appreciated her, they trusted her, and couldn't be more happy to be performing with her.

I haven't spent much time in theater circles, so I'm not sure how commonplace this behavior is. But this strikes me as very healthy culture amongst the cast. Maybe it's the fruit of a very capable director?

The Surprise in the Cast

I'll just get it in the open now so we can move on - Julius Caesar is a women.

Not just played by a women, but the actually character in the play was changed to a female role / lead. And you can stop rolling your eyes.... now. Though I can relate because when I first heard this I was concerned the production was going to be a radical reinterpretation of the original work. This is not the case. It is only one of a few modifications (more of which I will touch on later).

I don't believe Shakespeare's intention was to accurately portray a historical event, and if it was, he failed miserably. More importantly he is telling a timeless tale about pride, power, and politics.

In retrospect this modification felt minor. It helps that she is a phenomenal actress. In fact, now it's hard to imagine a better Julius Caesar than Vilma Silva.

The Start

I've never put much thought into how a play begins. I don't mean the first line of the play or the story telling method that is used to pull the audience into the narrative. I'm talking about when the lights dim, the audience quiets, the curtain rises to reveal the stage; that precise moment that stands between "before the play" and "the play" itself.

As I mentioned before, the cast was out mingling with the audience. As the start time approached a few announcements were made and invitation was given for audience participation. This amounted to going rabid whenever Caesar lifted her hands. We practiced once, erupting into cheers, whoops, chants, applause, stomping. Spurred on further by the cast we practiced a second time - the atmosphere became absolutely electric.

Right at the height of the second "practice", shouts erupted on stage and the play broke in to action.

This was one of the best theater experiences of my life. The line that marks the start of the play was totally blurred in the ecstatic cheers. At an unidentifiable moment, we as the audience merely practicing our cheers, had evolved into actors in the play, which had already begun.


The Stage

This type of an opening complemented the unique nature of the stage. The play was performed in the New Theater (Which is actually the name. Makes one wonder if the name of the theater will evolve over time).

It is a 360 degree stage, with the audience in true stadium seating looking down at the stage in the center.

This got me geeking out on the science of a stage. In contrast to a typical stage, which is largely a two-dimensional canvas on and X and Y axis (up/down and left/right) with entrances to the stage on either side. The New Theater is in a sense a true 3-dimensional stage, adding a Z axis (forward and backward) with entrances now on the left and right (X axis) and the front and back (Y axis).

This changes everything when it comes to choreography.

The first time I described to someone the natural question was "did you spend half the play looking at everyones butt?". I was perplexed, because this seems like it should be the case. The fact that this thought never crossed my mind during the play must be a supreme compliment to the choreography of the production.

In this picture of Ashland, the New Theater is just behind the open air Shakespearean Theater in the foreground.

The Costumes and Props

The wardrobe was superb. While the rendition of the play was true to the period of the text, the clothing was more contemporary/modern/industrial. Think jeans, boots, messenger bags, canvas, utilikilt. In less words; bad ass.

I can imagine this not working for some people, but it totally worked for me. The clothes looked good by modern design aesthetics, making it less of a distractions and allowed me to more fully enjoy the content of the play.

The whole play was knives and swords, that is until Octavius pulled out a gun. In the moment, this was great for the intensity factor, but for me it kind of blew the consistency of the period. If people have guns why did everyone waste their time with knives and swords until this point? This bothered me more then Julius Caesar being a women. That's not to say it was a big deal, but goes to show how minor both of them are. Elena wasn't bothered by this at all though. So maybe I'm being anal.

The Story

In high school, I was convinced Julius Caesar was the bad guy. Brutus and Cassius were noble martyrs. This conclusion makes sense as a modern day interpretation coming from an American worldview. "Freedom, liberty, and death of the tyrant" is something any good American can get behind.

But freedom and liberty for who? And what is really motivating the political action and for who's benefit?

All the details of this production couldn't have made the tension of the play more palpable.

The Most Memorable Scenes

Caesars dream scene sent shivers across ever inch of my body.

Cinna the Poets murder tied my stomach in knots.

Mark Antony's eulogy for Caesar was a riot


I don't fancy myself a theater snob, so I fear it's hard to be critical. As an amateur theater-goer I was blown away by this production. I never imagined I could have so much to say about a play. Personally, just that it was able to stir thought and reflection on so many levels demonstrates the quality of the production.

After this very positive experience we're looking into a subscription to the Portland Center Stage. They give sizable discounts on tickets and subscription packages for anyone under the age of 30. I have my eye on Anna Karenina coming next April.


Elena said...

I read it. And I loved it. Great review of the play David. You paint a very good picture of the experience.

DK said...

"I dare not call it a review." It's my impressions, or a reflection...but not a review. Okay, I guess you could call it an "amateur review". ;)

But thanks. :)