I was very excited when I heard about the 2019 summer/fall season at the American Shakespeare Center: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. I’m kind of obsessed with Shakespeare’s Roman plays.
Due to other obligations and theater-going opportunities, I didn’t end up seeing them until the end of the season. I enjoy going to shows when they’ve been running for a while, because actors make discoveries while they’re working. I was also able to see them close together in time, which allowed me to compare them directly. Considering them as a set was an interesting exercise.
For one thing, casting was mostly stable across the plays, meaning that David Anthony Lewis played Caesar in both Julius Caesar and Caesar and Cleopatra, Geoffrey Kent played Antony in both of the Shakespeare plays, and Rufio, an Antony analog, in the Shaw. Two different women (Zoe Speas and Constance Swain) played Cleopatra, but other than that, there was consistency.
On the one hand, this is neat to see, because it allows actor and audience to track character development across the course of the story. On the other, one thing I usually enjoy about the way ASC typically does ensemble casting is that actors who have big roles in one show typically have smaller roles in the others. This distributes the work of the season, discourages a “star” system, and lets audiences have a chance to get a real feel for each actor’s work. As an isolated feature of this specific season, I thought it was a great idea. I hope, though, that it does not indicate a broader move toward less balanced ensemble casting.
Of the three plays, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed Caesar and Cleopatra the most. I’d read the play, but never seen it staged. From what I remembered about the script, it was kind of slow and uninteresting. I also think Shaw seriously underestimates Cleopatra (doesn’t everyone?). Eric Tucker’s staging of it, though, was imaginative, lively, and engaging. He clearly embraced the implications of the Blackfriars, capitalizing on its strengths and poking a gentle tease at its weaknesses. The text work was also the strongest I saw in any production this season–another surprise, as I would have expected the actors’ experience with Shakespeare to supersede the newer textual patterns of Shaw.
These plays have all been reviewed at length by better reporters than I, and when I write about plays that I see, my goal is more to give myself notes about what bits warrant further thought than to offer criticism. I’ll note one thing from each production that was worth thinking about, from a directorial standpoint.
The staging in Caesar and Cleopatra made excellent use of the space. I want to challenge how I play with where we are on the platea stage, and Tucker gave me some brilliant examples. I’ve generally stuck with conventions like, if a scene starts with a declaration that we’re in a certain spot, we leave that more or less stable for the course of the scene. Recently, I’ve seen some productions at the ASC that play with space in a way I find intriguing and I’d like to try out. In Comedy of Errors last year, they used a rotating door flat to have the audience be by turns inside and outside of the house. In Caesar and Cleopatra, in the scene where Caesar is supposed to climb up to the paw of the sphinx to meet Cleopatra for the first time, he was standing on the stage level, looking up at the balcony to talk to her, and then exited to “climb up”…at which point the trap opened and the sides of the trap (at stage floor level) became the paws of the sphinx.
In Julius Caesar (directed by new artistic director Ethan McSweeney), I was extraordinarily pleased to hear the storm, created in surround sound–very much like Mary Beth Smith’s MLitt thesis. I think they were following her guidelines, rolling bowling balls in the heavens and rattling the thunder sheet. I couldn’t hear much of the dialog in that scene, and it confirmed what I’ve always assumed was true–the words don’t matter. The soundscape for that production overall was excellent. For those who know my work well, you’ll recognize that this is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. Experiencing it as an audience member–not knowing where or when the next shift of the storm was coming–was a truly wonderful experience.
In Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Sharon Ott, one thing I noticed was how different her cut was from mine, and how those choices changed the focus of the play. For one thing, I quite controversially cut the soothsayer (I don’t like him! He doesn’t say any sooth! Some of his predictions are flat wrong. And he’s annoying. Writing this soothsayer was Shakespearean fan service for people who loved him in Caesar). In this production–where he was played and costumed by the same actor as in Julius Caesar–I started to think there might be a point to him after all. The whole play has so many references to people trying to find out what happens next. Unlike Caesar, where Caesar gets some unspeakably specific warnings and chooses to ignore them, everyone in Antony and Cleopatra is searching for answers about what comes next. Those answers are…enigmatical, at best. “The augurers / Say they know not, they cannot tell; look grimly, And dare not speak their knowledge.” So keeping that soothsayer adds to the fabric of future-seeking that weaves the play together.