Village Voice

Screams and Visions

by Michael Feingold

The North Pole is melting, and the Times says this proves that global warming "may be real"—just as my review proves that I may have gone to the theater  twice last week. Possibly I didn't, though; possibly it was all a dream, or a hallucination. One of the two plays was filled with portents, omens,  prophecies, and ghosts; the other one was a dream, its characters people  already dead, who could make themselves young or old at will. The one  finished, in pointless despair and death, on the words "this happy day"; the  other concluded with a 77-year-old woman leaving Hell for Heaven, to give  birth to the Nietzschean Superman. Why do people say our contemporary  playwrights are strange? For weirdness, give me Shakespeare and Shaw every  time.   

Putting the Soothsayer onstage at beginning and end, to chant some gibberish while flames shoot up on cue, Barry Edelstein's production of Julius Caesar  lays a hysterical overemphasis on the play's portents and omens. But then,  Edelstein puts a hysterical overemphasis on everything; for him, the only  tones allowable in Shakespeare are apparently moderate calm and screaming.  This frenzied bipolarity brings even worse results in Caesar than it would in  most of the non-Roman plays: The English Renaissance had a very strong sense  of ancient Rome's gravitas, in which Shakespeare found a new dignity, of both  versification and character psychology. (Granville Barker, who called Caesar  "the gateway through which Shakespeare passed to the writing of his five  great tragedies," analyzed the change in loving detail.)   Not that Shakespeare became stuffy: On the contrary, Edelstein's production  either cuts or plays past all the text's jokes and ironies, except for those  that can be articulated with a sledgehammer. Hysteria leaves no space for  irony, with which the script is packed. And this director's hysteria is  notably literal-minded: It's not enough for Caesar to tell us that Calpurnia  cried, "Help, ho! They murder Caesar!" three times in her sleep; in  Edelstein's version, first we have to see the sleeping Calpurnia cry it out  three times, then Caesar has to tell us so. Edelstein finds time for this, as  he does for the play's most embarrassing textual anomaly, the double  revelation of Portia's death. But he finds no time for dramatic tension, for  subtly building to climaxes, for the doubts and questions—moral, ethical,  political—with which the play is riven. He succeeds once—or Jamey Sheridan's  Brutus does—when the notion of the conspirators' dipping their hands in dead  Caesar's gore is played as a wild, momentary impulse instead of a solemn  ritual. Here, finally, the frenzy has an idea behind it—that even the highest  and boldest acts of political life are driven by unexplained urges, that  Destiny plays the central role in our lives after all.  

This notion—the "special providence in the fall of a sparrow"—which will tantalize Shakespeare for the rest of his playwriting career, strikes a  watershed in Julius Caesar, famously troublesome in the theater as a play  without a hero. Caesar's characters are good men who do evil; even those  painted as tyrannical (like Caesar) or vindictively cruel (like Mark Antony)  are also shown as capable of grief, love, generosity of spirit. In such a  play, irony rules; the conventional plus and minus signs of stage emotion are  irrelevant. Magnified into screaming and stomping and table-pounding, they  clutter the action instead of clarifying it. In this regard, Sheridan, who  sustains a solid if stuffy dignity until he gives way to the general screech,  and Jeffrey Wright's Antony, cool and devious when not viewing every long  speech as an invitation to rant, are the only principals who come off with  even limited credit. Dennis Boutsikaris's Cassius starts like an adolescent challenging Brutus on a bet, and regresses from there to infantile tantrums  in the tent scene; David McCallum's Caesar yelps and gesticulates like an  emperor in an animated cartoon. Since these actors, all known quantities,  have done fine work in the past, one has to blame Edelstein for the dismaying  result. Also his fault, presumably, is newcomer Colette Kilroy's rendering of  Portia as a nagging wife out of a sitcom. 

In such a context, it's only the very smallest roles that sometimes escape the directorial push for clamor; you have to scrape to find virtues here:  Ezra Knight's little moment as Pindarus; two of Curt Hostetter's, as  Trebonius and Strato; Judith Hawking's wifely Calpurnia; the grave crispness  Clement Fowler gives Cicero's diction; the mix of lucidity and panic in Nadia  Bowers's Artemidorus—maybe 12 bearable minutes, all told, out of two hours  plus. Directors uninterested in shaping performances often compensate with a  strong visual imagination, but Edelstein's physical staging, crude without  being simple, fails to grip. Antony's funeral oration, in which Wright has to  clamber down a ladder to get to Caesar's corpse, and then lug it downstage to  display the wounds, is a nadir of awkwardness; the crowd reactions—in this  scene which is thought of as a director's godsend—are perfunctory to the  point of travesty.  

Designers can heighten and even guide a director's approach, but Edelstein's colleagues seem only to share his vagueness. Angela Wendt's low-toned  modernish costumes offer the characters no striking individuality; Narelle  Sissons's set, featuring a giant head and hand of Caesar, is more an obstacle  than a visual aid. Edelstein may want to evoke the toppling of Stalin statues  after perestroika—he wouldn't be the first—but his only moves in that   direction are halfhearted. A similarly egregious allusion gives him his  first-act curtain: When Cinna the Poet's killed, he's dragged to a handy  block and tackle and hung upside down. Olivier's Coriolanus died that way, to  evoke Mussolini's finish. But Cinna's death, undeserved and arbitrary, is a  casual product of mob caprice, hardly on the same scale. In aping the showy  gesture, Edelstein removes its point—a perfect summation of what he's done  all through.