October 12, 2013

A "Julius Caesar" Filled with Fierce Women

Female actors didn’t appear on the professional stage until about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death. Which explains, at least in part, why actresses are always lamenting the paucity of great roles for women in his plays as compared to those for men (although that's no excuse for the paucity of strong female roles in plays written over the last five centuries). 

Last year, the director Phyllida Lloyd decided to tackle the no-good roles problem head-on by staging an all-female production of Julius Caesar for London’s Donmar Warehouse. And now, to the great good fortune of New York theater lovers of all genders, that production has come to St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it will play through Nov. 3. [Now extended through Nov. 9.]

Julius Caesar has never been one of my favorites but after seeing a terrific all-black version at BAM last spring (click here for my review of it) I was so curious to see what might be done with all women that I bought my ticket to Lloyd’s production the first hour they were available to the general public. And I'm sure glad I did because Lloyd's interpretation is fresh, ballsy and thrillingly entertaining.
I got to St. Ann’s early the night of my performance and it was a warm enough fall evening for me to be able to sit on a bench outside the theater. Small groups of women dressed in hoodies and sweat pants kept passing by but I didn’t pay them much attention until I recognized that one of them was the great Harriet Walter, who plays Brutus in the production and who, like the others in the 14-member cast, had to get ready in a dressing area a few doors away from the main playing space.  
That’s because the theater has been reconfigured to accommodate the conceit of a show within a show that is being presented at a women’s prison. Audience members pick up their tickets at the coffee bar next door and then are lead in groups by ushers dressed as prison guards into the theater, which has been lit with harsh institutional lighting.
The action starts when Caesar, played with great butch swagger by Frances Barber, makes a too triumphant entrance into the prison’s common area, causing the once loyal  adjutants Cassius and Brutus to begin plotting the top dog’s downfall. Meanwhile, the love between Caesar and Marc Antony is presented as definitely more than platonic or sororal. 
Jenny Jules is appropriately lean and intense as Cassius. And Cush Jumbo delivers Antony’s famous funeral oration with a nimble cunning that both amuses and impassions its listeners. But all the women are terrific and clearly having a good time as they luxuriate in this too rare opportunity to be badass (click here to read an interview with several of them).  
Oddly, the odd one out is Walters.  A doyenne of the Royal Shakespeare Company for over 30 years, Walters has played all the juicy female parts from Helena and Viola to Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth but she appears a bit stiff in this frisky production. She remains, however, a great actress and finds a way to use that awkwardness to inform Brutus’ role as the conspirator least comfortable with the plan to overthrow Caesar. 
The production has a few awkward moments of its own. The line between the show and the show-within-a-show gets blurred and while most of the prison interpolations are entertaining, not all of them make sense.  Why, for instance, is the Soothsayer riding around on a tricycle?
And yet somehow Lloyd has managed to make all the pieces add up. The production runs for over two hours without intermission (the folks at the coffee bar urge audience members to use the restroom before entering the theater) but I was riveted throughout.  And I can’t remember hearing Shakespeare’s words more beautifully—or lucidly—spoken. 
This is such a Shakespeare heavy season (four productions on Broadway; a bunch more off-Broadway, the National Theatre celebration of its 50th anniversary with simulcasts of some of its recent Shakespeare hits and the four-part PBS series “The Hollow Crown") that even the most devoted Bard lovers may be throwing up their hands in surrender. But here’s some advice: get your hands on a ticket for this one. 

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