Theater works best when it is humble, for when it calls attention to itself it turns the men and women in the audience into critics. If you come back from a production raving about the technique of one of the actors, or about well-executed choreography or an exotic set, you have seen an exhibition, not a play. When, on the other hand, the artists are completely in the service of the playwright, it allows you to enter the fictive dream, and to remain there until the playwright and his co-conspirators have brought you to its climax. If the day after seeing a production of King Lear you talk about what Lear and Gloucester did, instead of, say, what Stacy Keach and Ed Gero did, then you have seen theater at its highest and best.
The justly-celebrated Taffety Punk Theatre Company is, like Julius Caesar himself, ambitious. Whether they are setting dialogue found in a suicide chat room to music or performing a Shakespeare play with only a day’s rehearsal, Taffety Punk begins each of its theatrical enterprises with a daredevil stunt, and then faces the additional challenge of making you ignore the stunt so that you can take pleasure in the production.
The stunt with which they ignite their production of Julius Caesar is actually a fairly tame one, by Taffety Punk standards: they perform it with a cast composed entirely of women. This is a provocative idea: William Shakespeare’s meditation on the moral struggle between the love which Brutus (Esther Williamson) has for the Republic of Rome and the love he has for his friend Caesar (Tiernan Madorno), who is being swept into a position of unlimited power, obtains to women as well as men. Women, as much as men, love their countries; they are capable of political violence (eg., Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, women suicide bombers); they come to lead nations (too many examples to list) and are sometimes killed for it (eg. Indira Gandhi; Benazir Bhutto). In short, women have as much claim to all the elements of Julius Caesar as men do except for the actual historical facts, and it would have been provocative and fun to reimagine the story with Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and the rest as women, rather than men.
Alas, this is not what Taffety Punk does. Instead, we see women playing men – some well, others not so well – and thus are at every moment aware that we are watching actors rather than characters; a play rather than life. Director Lise Bruneau afflicts her actors with ties and other male accouterments. The ones who play male characters cut their hair short or otherwise disguise their femininity. Although the company excises much from Shakespeare’s text, the gender-specific pronouns remain, and every time we hear a “he” we are reminded that whoever he is, he is being played by a woman. We think not about the moral conundrum Shakespeare has posed for Brutus, or its aftermath, but the success or failure of the actors in performing the special challenge their company has laid out for them.
So let’s get to that issue: the most successful actor is unquestionably Jessica Lefkow, who gives us a spectacular Cassius, charismatic in his spidery way, a born leader, wise and graceful enough to yield to one more charismatic still. We see in an instant, thanks to Lefkow’s portrayal, that Cassius is someone who thinks more quickly than others – who is at step five while others are still trying to suss out step two. We understand immediately why Caesar fears Cassius. At the same time, we understand why Cassius hates the mob impulse to crown Caesar; he has taken the measure of the great general, and finds it not larger than his own. It is a layered, sophisticated role, and Lefkow gets every bit of it.
Madorno is an excellent Caesar, too. Better than most actors, she allows us to see how the great man wore power. You know how Caesar looked from his innumerable portraits: an older man, bald, and no athlete. But Madorno is young and powerful-looking. This is one of the advantages of casting women to play men’s roles: it frees the actor from slavishly resembling the historical character, and allows her to mine the personal and emotional characteristics with which the playwright has undergirded the character. When Modrano, as Caesar, says “But I am constant as the northern star,/Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament” she says with the air of a leader who has come to believe her own press clippings, rather than brusquely or angrily, as many male Caesars do. Madorno’s performance gives a hint at how good this production could have been.
Williamson as Brutus and Ralaleh Nassri as Marc Antony do less well. Williamson’s soft-spoken performance serves the character well in the scenes where he is conflicted or reflective, but she is underwhelming in those scenes were Brutus needs to take command. In the crucial scene in Brutus’ tent after the assassination of Caesar, where Brutus needs to bring Cassius to heel, Lefkow’s Cassius completely overmatches Williamson. This is not Lefkow’s fault – she gives her scene partner every opportunity to take control – but Brutus’ lack of command in the scene makes its conclusion implausible, and renders the subsequent revelation of the death of Brutus’ wife less moving than it should be.
Nassri is an intelligent actor and a good director who in the past has shown a sure hand in interpreting character, and so her uninspired Antony is a disappointment. Antony must begin the play as a seeming ne’er-do-well who is so inconsequential that Brutus, fatally, dismisses him as one of Caesar’s “limbs” who will wither and blow away once the great man is dead. When he makes his famed funeral oration over Caesar’s bloody cloak he becomes, as Andrew Long made so brilliantly clear in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2008 production, a man at last free to be as clever, devious and acquisitive as he can be. Nassri’s delivery of this iconic speech shows none of this deviousness. Instead, her pronouncements seem genuinely improvised, and borne of the anger she feels toward the conspirators. It makes the ruthless Antony who inhabits the remaining portion of the play seem like a different character.
The supporting cast, with the exception of Rana Kay in various roles and Katie Molinaro in an exceptionally lucid performance as Portia, the wife of Brutus, does not bring much to the party. Taffety Punk’s usually surefooted technical elements are amiss in this production, too.
On the night I saw the production there were several glitches with the lighting. This will occasionally happen in any play but in general Chris Curtis’ lighting design is dim, and prone to casting startling and distracting shadows. Marcus Kyd’s sound design seems occasionally to be at war with the production. Particularly during the battle scenes, the ambient sound makes the actors (especially Brutus) difficult to hear, and the musical selection seems eccentric – for example, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” appears to be an odd choice as background music for the early scene in which the mob clamors for Caesar. Bruneau has trouble making the play’s enormous cast graceful on the Capital Hill Arts Workshop’s tiny stage. For example, she has the death of Cassius, which is premised on a complicated and colossal error on his part, done with warriors running back and forth in the foreground, thus distracting the audience from the crucial utterances of the characters.
But in the end it is not unsuccessful choices, technical problems or miscasting which does this production in. It is that Taffety Punk appears to have set out to make this play difficult, rather than to make it great. The point seems to be to show that women actors can play male roles, instead of to produce a superb Julius Caesar. Thus, even had it been more successful, it would have been a performance, rather than an experience. This is enormously frustrating, given the fabulous talent within the troupe. Here: at the end of the play, when the actors take their bows, one of them holds a paper-bag puppet. It is an inside joke, the nature of which I do not know. Taffety Punk does it at the end of all their performances, and it serves as a reminder that the show is about Taffety Punk. It is emblematic, and not the act of a mature company. I look forward to the day when Taffety Punk grows up, and becomes the great company it can be.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Lise Bruneau
Produced by Taffety Punk’s Riot Grrrls
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Julius Caesar runs thru Oct 23, 2010 at Capital Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, DC.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.