at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
by William Shakespeare
All the best moments of this production of Julius Caesar come before Shakespeare’s words are heard on stage:
- The banners in front of the New Theater venue and in its lobbies memorialize assassinated leaders from Xerxes in ancient Persia through Indira Gandhi in modern India. Stark and powerful, these black and white statements promise an accessible, strong, and contemporary evening.
- Before going dark, Vilma Silva (Caesar — no problems for me with this gender twist) introduces herself and asks that the audience participate in the play by cheering for her, and the cast divvies up the sections of seats and cheer leads the “Hail, Caesars!”s of each audience block. What fun this is going to be!
And, then the play starts and everything falls to a luke-warm, confused, rushed mess.
I have enjoyed many productions of Julius Caesar. I have seen most all of the cast of this production excel in many Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays.
So, what is different this time?
I suspect that director Amanda Dehnert was simply out of her league. This evening had no vision, no clarity, and no life. The banners and initial cheer leading must have been someone else’s idea — my seat mates suggested that other people were brought in the save this production — because there are no banners, no sustained audience cheering, and no energy the rest of the awful evening.
Specific things were plain wrong:
- Too few actors played too many characters in too small a space. In the theater-in-the-round configuration of the New Theater, the audience is intimate with the actors. Anyway, in Ashland audiences recognize the actors. So, Anthony Heald is Cicero and he doesn’t become a different person in the ensemble just because they stuck a hat on him. If you’re going to economize on actors, do a five-character play. The New Theater isn’t the right place for known OSF actors to play many parts.
- Ako was hideously miscast as the Soothsayer… and everything else. She has a thick accent which distorts her words and hides her emotions. As the “Beware of the Ides of March” lady she was halting and impotent. It made no sense that Caesar — or anyone — would have even remembered her or her predictions. Awful.
- People ran on stage and ran off stage too much. Quick, confused. We couldn’t track which character an actor was supposed to be in this appearance, and the story seemed be cut and endlessly long at the same time.
- The audience was revved up to participate in the play. We got to cheer Caesar a couple times in the early scenes, but then, nothing. Why not? Similarly, the striking banners decorated the entrance to the New Theater, but there were no professional banner in the play itself. Why not?
- The performance had too much high-school quality Symbolism. After being stabbed, Julius takes five minutes of pained, gesturing silence to float offstage in her gory robes. Then she appears as a ghost with kabuki movements in the second part of the play. Endlessly. She smears gray goo on her foes as they die on stage. She looks ethereal and ghostly and meaningful. Oh, vomit.
- Too many lines are delivered off-the-cuff as the characters moves on/off stage. This problem is compounded by the constant motion I already complained about. The audience is never sure on which person to focus, and important lines seem to come randomly from all over the stage.
In last year’s five-start Hamlet, Dan Donahue (Hamlet) delivered some of Hamlet’s best-known speeches as simple lines. I love underplaying. Dan was terrific! Yet, this Caesar didn’t feel subtle, it felt haphazard. Like the actors wanted to get the lines out and get done with the night.
None of the actors or crafts people connected. The normally sure Richard Hay’s set looked unfinished Props hung out at the corners of the stage. The costumes were weird. My husband and I compared notes and discovered that at one point we were both counting the number of zippers one character wore.
A performance this uniformly disappointing was mis-cooked by the director. No point in tsk-tskking over a woodenly delivered line here or an odd sight line there. Instead we’re going to remember Amanda Dehnert. She deserves it.
(the stars are for the sights and sounds that occur before the play begins)
One of the great things about the banners outside the theater is that many of them say different things on the two sides (Lincoln’s says “Tyrant” on one side, and “Emancipator” on the other, I think)
I completely disagree about Ako. OK, I do agree that her accent is difficult at times, but I thought that she was great as the Soothsayer, striking a chord that was scary enough to encourage Caesar to over-react and ignore the prophecy rather than admit that she was scared.