On September 9th, we made the pilgrimage to American Players Theatre for a Shakespeare double-header, “Julius Caesar” in the afternoon, and “Romeo and Juliet” in the evening. “Julius Caesar” gave the veteran members of the company room to stretch, with Brian Robert Mani in the title role and Jonathan Smoots as Brutus. With the exception of Michael Gotch as Cassius and David Daniel as Marc Anthony, most of the other company members (including the women) were kept on the run playing conspirators, soldiers of several factions, and the Roman mob. We found this production extraordinarily effective, especially in the use of sound. Martial drumming accented the action, and cast members spotted in the audience, together with recorded voices, made the audience literally part of the mass of people gathered for Brutus’ and Anthony’s funeral orations. Mani was an effective Caesar, showing both the courage that made the people adore him, and the insensitivity that made the conspirators fear him. When Caesar says:
“I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,—
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.”
--we could not help but think of certain of our current leaders and how proud they are of their fixedness of purpose in the face of the fact of their blundering.
Smoots as Brutus showed how difficult it was for him to come to the fatal decision to murder Caesar, which difficulty caused him to make the mistake of insisting on mercy for Marc Anthony. Gotch showed us Cassius’ impatience with the political situation early one, and frustration when things fall apart later. Marc Anthony as played by Daniels was a very naturalistic speaker in the critical funeral oration, which makes the display of his cynical calculation once established as part of the Triumvirate all the more shocking.
There was one thing about the production that I found unsatisfying: the assassination of Caesar, which calls for the conspirators to literally wash their hands in Caesar’s blood, used a sufficiency of stage blood that it had to be mopped up from the floor between scenes. The death of the hapless poet Cinna at the hands of the angry mob featured prosthetic body parts that were “torn” off and brandished about. By contrast, the suicides of Cassius and Brutus were painfully fake looking: inserting a sword’s point half an inch between armor plates causes near instantaneous death? I know these deaths were supposed to be more tragic and dignified than the murders that had gone before, but I think more effort could have gone into adding a bit more realism. But that’s my only quibble. This was an excellent performance, the best I have seen of this tragedy.
“Romeo and Juliet” was rather another thing. Compared with the spare verse of “Caesar”, the rhyming couplets sprinkled through R&J make it out to be a less mature work in a number of ways. The younger members of the cast were given the burden of the work, and I must honestly say I have rarely seen the characters played so well for their appropriate ages. In particular, Shawn Fagan as Romeo played an unrealistic spoiled brat so well that, in the scene where Friar Lawrence brings him the news of his banishment, had I been Friar Lawrence, I would have wanted to have kicked him while he groveled on the ground self-absorbedly sobbing and sniveling. Leah Curney as Juliet delivered her lines as Juliet with a believably teenaged word-pressure gushing out. With the youth of the characters thus pointed up, the enormity of their betrayal by their elders comes to the fore. Juliet’s parents are callous brutes to her at the critical moment; her nurse, who has abetted her secret marriage to Romeo turns out to be no help at all when she is presented with the appalling prospect of a blasphemous second wedding to Paris. And Jonathan Smoots plays Friar Lawrence a much sharper man than the bumbler we frequently see, which points out his moral cowardice: it’s never stated but implied that he would have married Juliet to Paris without daring to reveal that he had already performed the same ceremony with Romeo; and his abandonment of Romeo in Juliet’s tomb at the climax allows the final tragedy to occur.
Darragh Kennan as Mercutio did not display quite the verbal agility one frequently sees in this role, but played the character with a certain fey quality that I quite enjoyed. David Daniel played Tybalt with a menace that let you know he was a dangerous bully. Tracy Michelle Arnold’s Nurse was not the old bawd we sometimes see, but rather a too-worldly woman who nevertheless lets herself get caught up in her charge’s dreams of romance.
Again, not the most affecting performance I have seen: I was able to watch the denoument dry-eyed, but reflecting on the foolishness of it all. Nevertheless, there was much fresh and good in this production.