Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ashland Caesar

There are innovations in the new Ashland Shakespeare Festival production of  Julius Caesar,  but the presentation of a woman in the title role is not really one of them.  Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet more than a century ago; apparently she wasn't well received, but that fact appears to root in the performance per se and not in her sex. Other women have taken men's parts, if not often, still often enough to make it no longer a novelty.

The more pertinent issue is: why is Vilma Silva here?  Is she here because she is a seasoned stage-person responding to a new challenge?  Or because there is something that she as a woman can bring to a man's role?

If the latter, then it's not obvious to me what it is she was supposed to bring.  Shakespeare's Rome certainly does present itself as a man's world, and Caesar himself, in conventional readings, as a catalog of manly virtues.  Silva's Caesar certainly isn't particularly manly--she's rather a good, hardened, seasoned, female politician, on the order of Elizabeth Dole.  It's a coherent reading in its way but it's a reading you certainly can't torture out of the text.  And it is far from clear what it adds to our understanding of Caesar (or Caesar) except insofar as it shows us what he is not.

Yet if she is not to be judged as a woman, why specify that she is "she?" Why put her in a gown and rewrite all the pronouns?  As I say it is no longer a novelty for women to play "men's parts."  Ashland for years has used African Americans (and others) in traditional white-male roles, to good effect.  Here in Caesar, there are other women in the cast, some in "men's parts" without making any effort to recast the characterization: Antony says "you are not wood, you are not stones, but men"--but are several women on the stage.   Ironically, one loss of insisting on Caesar's womanhood is that we lose one good woman's part: Caesar's wife, Calpurnia is hustled out of the script, her lines reassigned to others, in whom they make less sense.

Were we to evaluate Silva as a theatre-person and not as a woman, I'd judge her a bit disappointing, though not hugely so.  She's an effective communicator, dynamic and magnetic but again she is herself, not Caesar and it's so she comes across as a successful elocutionist, not as an actor.  For what it is worth, I'd say the same about Danforth Comins' Antony. Comins is one of the most impressive veterans in the Ashland company and he has turned in some superb performances (his Brick last year in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was as good as it gets).  In his big speech a Antony ("Friends! Romans!  Countrymen!") he comes near to the right level of manipulative sociopathy.  But you remember that underneath it all he is just too decent a guy for all the mischief that Antony so effectively creates.   The best actors are the ones that make you forgot who they really are. 

If there is a noteworthy innovation in the production, I suppose it is "Ako,"  cast as(inter alia) the Soothsayer who speaks some of her lines  in what I take to be Japanese.  Remarkably, I'd say that this does work. Let's stipulate that there were not Japanese in the Roman forum; still, the alien utterance adds just the note of strangeness you would want for such an urgent intimation of doom.  


Anonymous said...

is that ashland, kentucky? it's the biggest town in NE kentucky home to ashland oil which i never hear of any more. i once worked for the congressman who represented that area and i got a call from senator dee huddleston's chief aide telling me that dee wanted the congressman to know that a lawyer in ashland was being put forth for a federal judgeship. when congressman perkins came back to the office i told him about the nomination. "Well, he's ashland oil's chief lawyer." carl said. "Now ashland oil will have its own federal judge."

Buce said...

No, Oregon, sorry. They don't have a Federal judge.