Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
First, necessarily, comments on the controversy: Theater is a living, breathing art form. It has always reflected and reacted to its time. Currently, LGBT and apocalyptic themes are joined by a proliferation of stories with immigrant, and Middle East discourse/illumination. Religious freedom, women’s rights and segregation have ruled the stage in waves.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, in this, the Public Theater’s current iteration of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the central character is meant to physically resemble Donald Trump and his wife to sound like Melania. Why not?! The classic drama has been produced with Caesar portrayed as Mussolini in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist version, an unnamed African dictator for that of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, in 2012, President Obama at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. None of these interpretations provoked protests. That original text resonates in each rendition is sufficient reason to restage the piece.
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Marvel
Oscar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, chose Caesar for relevance and, in his own words, as “a warning parable.” This examination of how far a people may go to protect democracy from a charismatic demagogue clearly shows radical consequences of anarchistic violence rather than advocating it. A staff driven by greed and personal advancement (sound familiar?) gets just desserts. Brutus is the only patriotic, if misguided conspirator, a fact acknowledged but not celebrated. Fatalism sweeps the stage like sirocco. Chaos ensues.
The play itself is problematic. While much proves as lively as it is timeless – “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” is from bona fied text (the audience laughs), a long, dense scene in which Brutus and Cassius disagree on plans could put anyone to sleep. Attention dips for a time after Marc Antony’s spectacular death bed (here, a gurney) oration.
Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson; Nikki M. James and Corey Stoll
Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry, with inadequate bombastic presence) greets adoring Rome with wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko, palpably seductive; great Slavic accent) preening by his side. At one point, he bats her away, a gesture that could easily have been played in reverse had the director wanted to be more partisan. Though he refuses a crown, it’s obvious Caesar’s fingers itch.
Fearing the loss of democracy, members of The Senate plot assassination at the instigation of Brutus (Corey Stoll, who underplays so much, it feels like we’re watching a disgruntled bureaucrat, not a soldier or statesman.) “He scorns the base degrees by which he did ascend,” Brutus declares of Caesar. (Currently applicable?)
Of this bunch, Teagle F. Bougere’s Casca is solidly credible and John Douglas Thompson (Cassius) provides one of two masterful characterizations every time he’s onstage. Thompson is vital, impassioned; his voice deep and invested, phrasing accessible yet poetic, presence shimmers with power. A soldier to his toes.
Corey Stoll and The Company
Conspirators come and go at Brutus’s home prompting questioning concern by his wife Portia (an excellent Nikki M. James) who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her husband into telling her what’s going on. Calpurnia almost has better luck when, fearing the portent of a dream, she attempts to get Caesar to blow off the Senate in favor of cavorting with her, initially in a gold bathtub (inspired). With convincing reinterpretation Decius (Eisa Davis) changes his mind back, however. It’s here we first meet Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel), seemingly drunk and wearing shades (go figure), arrive to accompany her leader to the gathering.
You know the rest. Caesar is stabbed multiple times – here, first in the back, then physically pulled over the top of a podium to the floor and pierced by all. Brutus is the last and apparently most reticent, appearing directly after, glazed as a deer in headlights. A couple of actors have difficulty getting daggers out of pockets. One participant photographs the body on a Smart Phone.
Antony is devastated. “She” secures permission to address the public after Brutus’s brief announcement of Caesar’s death. (Pronouns change when applicable.) Marvel, a second terrific performance, looks and sounds like Sissy Spacek replete with Texas accent. The actress roils then erupts. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” One of Shakespeare’s great Machiavellian speeches, it sounds as if in support of Brutus & Co while denouncing them with honeyed words, inciting the crowd. Nuanced writing moves seamlessly from defeat to empowerment to challenge. Marvel wonderfully emotes from her gut.
Elizabeth Marvel and The Company
The rest is demonstrations, Civil War, firing squads, and suicides. Battles are well staged. With civilians calling out, then running on stage from all over the audience, energy high and movement constant, violent pandemonium is evoked despite lack of much choreographed fighting. (NYC sirens often add.) Political and psychological parallels are many. Alas, the show’s incredibly short run doesn’t allow more of you to find them for yourselves.
Director Oscar Eustis moves his large cast with strategic skill immersing the audience, manipulating tension, creating sweep. Two-handers create palpable intimacy. Brutus and his boy Lucilius (Tyler La Marr) are as profoundly personal as he and Cassius or he and Portia. When laughter rises from the bleachers out of recognition, it fades to allow the production to continue.
David Rockwell’s Set looks as if it was designed by committee members each of whom stuck to his own vision, which, judging by his organization’s current ubiquity, may be the case. Too many styles deny the play gravitas as well as cohesion. Additionally, while a poster-plastered, graffiti-filled wall supporting a large number of floral tributes is timely and the Senate chamber looks splendid, inside Brutus’ tent resembles a lady’s sewing room and various Photoshopped panels evoke high school productions. Oh, and there’s the giant eye, a representation of Big Brother?
Most of Paul Tazewell’s contemporary, non-distracting Costume Design works well, though street cops without weapons or communication equipment become lite police. (His Tactical Squad is frighteningly well outfitted.)
Jessica Paz deserves double call out for Sound Design. Not only does she conjure vociferous mobs and not so distant violence, but every player speaking from the audience (and there are many) is distinctly heard. Original Music and Soundscapes by Bray Poor are cinematic.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Greg Henry and The Company
Free Shakespeare in the Park/ The Public Theater presents Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare Directed by Oscar Eustis The Public Theater In the park: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – July 11-August 13, 2017
Another reframed Shakespeare play, another 13 (I counted) helicopters disturbing performance (these can’t be rerouted?!), another frighteningly lifelike battle utilizing explosions and assault rifles?!
Troilus & Cressida appears to have been selected and certainly was staged to shock. A lengthy combat scene is viscerally difficult to sit through. At a time when war, increased local violence, lack of gun control and terrorism are ubiquitous in the news, it strikes me that subjecting us to something so theatrically realistic and compelling, achieves the complete opposite. Is this something to which we want to become inured?!
Troilus- Andrew Burnap, Pandarus- John Glover, Cressida- Ismenia Mendes
This is also a piece rife with testosterone-filled exposition; long episodes of men comparing muscles (a euphemism), swearing, and daring. A particularly odd choice. Having said that, acting and staging are skillful and energetic.
The latter part of the Trojan War: After playing footsie awhile, with the matchmaking help of her uncle Pandarus (John Glover), spunky Cressida (Ismenia Mendas) and earnest, boyish Troilus (Andrew Burnap) admit to and consummate their love. Shortly thereafter, she’s the object of prisoner exchange ending up in a Greek camp hotly pursued by Diomedes (Zach Appleman) to whom she turns, either attracted or in survival mode.
Because of a promise to his lady?! the great Greek soldier Achilles (seamless last minute replacement Louis Cancelmi) refuses to fight, choosing instead to remain in his tent with his lover Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), listening to heavy metal music. Powers-that-be trick him into one-on-one combat with Troilus’s brother Hector (Bill Heck) by first sending in the played-as-stupid-and-obtuse Ajax (Alex Breaux) who loses without shedding blood.
It’s not clear what the fight will accomplish, but at the Greek camp, Trojans and their hosts remain in peaceful truce. Troilus is led to spy on Cressida by trouble-making Ulysses (Corey Stoll), a civilian advisor who times it so that the Trojan will observe his girl with Diomedes. She’s accused of perfidy by her boyfriend and storms off.
In this version, Achilles then challenges Hector for a national rematch out of pride, though synopses found online indicate he does so to revenge Patroclus’ death which is attributed to Hector. Wounded, he also loses. Grisly war resumes. At the end of the piece, like Caesar at the Forum, Hector is surrounded by Achilles men and ignominiously knifed to death. Troilus mourns him kneeling in a pool of his brother’s blood. We never find out what happens to Cressida.
Ulysses-Corey Stoll and Ajax- Alex Beaux
Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendas, the show’s peripheral lovers, are natural actors with appealing chemistry, especially when in denial. Manly Bill Heck (a perfect movie Superhero) imbues Hector with dignity as well as confidence. Alex Breaux’s dumb Ajax is played with absolute credibility. Ulysses (Corey Stoll) is appropriately slimy. Stuck in caricatures, David Harbour (Achilles) and Tom Pecinka (Patroclus) ably carry out the director’s vision. Any play with the splendid John Glover is, to me, worth attending. Here the actor is warm, elegant, and occasionally playful as Pandarus – completely at home with Shakespeare.
Director Daniel Sullivan uses the mostly empty stage evocatively. His solders, with few exceptions, are cliché coarse and/or officious displaying no individuality. (Much of this may be the writing.) I don’t understand the compulsion to insert the currently requisite man in ridiculous drag and several flamboyant gay soldiers. As depicted, war is skin curdling.
Troilus-Andrew Burnap and Hector-Bill Heck
The play is performed in modern dress (David Zinn) which barely registers a blip (so acclimated are theater-going audiences) until soldiers take the stage in recognizable fighting gear.
Mark Menard’s Sound Design is aptly unnerving.
Sound like fun? The curious should be prepared.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Diomedes- Zach Appelman and Aeneas- Sanjit De Silva (center) and the Company
Every year, like clockwork, Woody Allen releases a new film. And it seems like the quality of his films keeps getting worse. Café Society brings in the usual: The big name stars, the idyllic setting, two people falling in love. These elements are usually enough to do the trick, but Allen has somehow run his creative streak into the ground. Simply put, Café Society is plagued by creative fatigue, dull characters, and side plots that take away from a film that is almost one big side plot in and of itself.
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) comes from a Jewish New York City family. His mother, in her attempt to help get him a job, calls up her brother Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-time Hollywood agent. So Bobby packs his stuff and moves out to Los Angeles for a while. His uncle is constantly busy and doesn’t really make any time for him, but he eventually helps Bobby pick up a job. While working in his uncle’s office, Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and he’s immediately smitten. Vonnie tells him from the start that she can’t be involved with him beyond friendship because she has a boyfriend. What Bobby doesn’t know, however, is that Vonnie’s boyfriend turns out to be Phil. After finding out, Bobby moves back to New York City and decides to help his older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), run his nightclubs. Somehow, he manages not to get involved in his brother’s more illegal dealings. While at one of the clubs, he meets, courts, and quickly marries Veronica (Blake Lively), who just happens to share the same name as his former girlfriend. But will he ever move on from loving Vonnie?
To say Café Society lacks any true substance would be accurate. Allen continuously revives the same kinds of characters. Characters who are seeking something, or someone, they have never encountered, always in somewhat of a naive approach. The situations they’re in may be only slightly different, but this isn’t saying much because they’re always, always the same semi-pretentious, surface-level characters no matter the setting. Café Society is set in late 1930s Hollywood, with all the style and glamour that this world encompasses. Yet it feels empty, with Allen going for part cynical and part dreamy, and neither of the two working in the film’s favor. Are we supposed to have sympathy for these characters? It sure doesn’t feel that way. Every scene feels clipped and because there’s no pull toward any singular person, the film feels oddly long for a run time of only an hour and a half.
Allen’s biggest misstep is the narration. His voice carries throughout the film’s scenes, practically giving us a play-by-play of what is going on and what the characters are thinking. His narration is lackluster and is blatantly lazy writing. Instead of showing us and delving further into character development through interaction, Allen chooses to tell us. Through the narration, we also receive loads of information on things and characters that are rather useless to the plot and only serve to waste time. Café Society is filled with ridiculous and horribly cheesy lines that even all the film’s big-name actors can’t save.
Ultimately, Café Society is drab and filled with a lot of problems: Lackluster characters, bad dialogue, too many minor plots, and narration more concerned with telling and not showing. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who I’ve always found to have superb chemistry when they’re together onscreen, are particularly good. Steve Carell is the older man who gets the girl (like in many, many Woody Allen movies), but his character doesn’t bring much to the table. Far more surprising is Blake Lively’s character, who’s barely in the film and exists only to be married to Eisenberg. Together, they have an onscreen dynamic.
In the last fifteen years, Woody Allen has made a few memorable films, but the remainder have been terrible and agonizing to sit through. Unfortunately, Café Society is another addition to that very long list.
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate Top: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart