CAMBRIDGE Arthur Nauzyciels Julius Caesar at the American Repertory Theatre is visually stunning, musically moody, and unceasingly stylish. What it isnt, particularly, is William Shakespeares Julius Caesar.
Sometimes that doesnt much matter, because the atmosphere this young French director creates is so hypnotically seductive that we find ourselves drawn into his dream of Caesar instead of wondering what happened to Wills. Nauzyciels approach, which bears the strong imprint of his training in visual arts and film as well as theater, verges on the operatic not so much because of the ways it uses music, but because, like many modern interpretations of classic operas, it is more concerned with the directors vision than with the composers or, still less, the librettists.
But of course Shakespeare is far more than a librettist, and so this emphasis on the mise-en-scene over language and character comes at a price. While Nauzyciels Caesar is rarely dull to look at, and while its JFK-era setting is clearly trying to make some comment on current American politics, it is too often tiresome to sit through and unclear about whatever political point it is trying to make.
Riccardo Hernandezs set, dominated by a photographically precise rendering of the empty ART seats on the back wall, wittily provokes us to consider just whos acting and whos watching here. It also evolves in bold and striking ways to support Nauzyciels conception of the play, which has its characters acting out their stories in some kind of dreamworld or, possibly, an afterlife.
The problem is that the same care has not been lavished on bringing meaning to every line and depth to every characterization. Effortlessly hip 60s costumes (skinny ties, Jackie-esque gowns), mid-mod furnishings, and a cleverly metaphorical set design can take you only so far. If the words dont come alive and the actors arent free to show us why they act as they do, our brains and hearts check out even as our eyes continue to admire.
Some of our detachment, its true, may be Shakespeares fault. Julius Caesar contains some famous set pieces and classic rhetoric Cassiuss persuasion of the reluctant Brutus, Caesars assassination in the Capitol, Mark Antonys funeral oration but as a play it is less fully fleshed out, less undeniably three-dimensional in its portraits of flawed human beings, than the greater works that would follow. Even Brutus (the plays real center, despite its title) never seems as complex or convincing as Hamlet and Lear.
But he does seem like a real person, and a noble one whose very nobility is the seed of his destruction. What fascinates us about Shakespeares Brutus is that he kills his dearest friend, Caesar but does it because he truly believes that it is the only virtuous course open to him. Its his tragedy to live long enough to see how little good his crime actually does.
Nauzyciels Brutus, in contrast, is a very different, if familiar, type: a smooth-talking politician who says hes acting only out of a desire for his countrys good, but whos really just in it for his own selfish ends. Jim True-Frost does a decent job of getting this portrayal across, just as the rest of the cast generally hits the marks Nauzyciel sets for them. (James Waterstons Mark Antony, though, is almost shockingly soft-spoken; could this guy really have inspired a nation to mutiny?) But to distort Brutus so fundamentally inevitably distorts the whole arc and tenor of the play.
The director has also imposed a potentially fruitful image that never fully pays off, by conceiving all the action as if it were seen through the eyes of a minor character, Brutuss young slave Lucius. Perhaps its all Luciuss dream; perhaps its really happening while he watches; perhaps everyone, including Lucius, is already dead and reliving these events in some afterworldly theater. All this ambiguity and theatricality makes for some indelible images and pleasantly disturbing feelings of uncertainty, but ultimately it doesnt leave us with a deeper or more coherent vision of Shakespeares play.
Nauzyciel has attempted to deepen Luciuss symbolic value by making him both deaf and silent; the few lines the character speaks have been translated into sign language, and the production also cheats a bit by having him sign when he wouldnt actually be speaking at all. The signing underscores the striking and unusual ways in which the director uses gesture for all his performers, but its hard to say exactly what were to make of it all. The way the actors move is often fascinating to watch, even beautiful, but it bears little apparent relation to the words theyre speaking or the actions theyre supposedly performing.
Some of this disconnection is just mildly distracting, as when Brutus refers to Lucius playing his instrument while the boy does nothing of the kind. (This musical interlude, like many others, is left to a charming but incongruous jazz trio, in this case crooning Suicide Is Painless, better known as the theme from M*A*S*H.) But sometimes its more damaging: The actors often face out at us to deliver speeches that are clearly meant to engage them in intimate, eye-to-eye exchange. Thus when Cassius and Brutus say farewell for what they know may be forever, they dont even look at each other.
Yes, it looks cool. And it says something about all of us playing a part on the worlds stage, or something. But it doesnt give any real sense of human relationships or insights unfolding before us; that may be why its hard even to comment on the individual actors performances, because whatever theyre aiming for is subsumed in the larger conception of the production. Shakespeare had big ideas, too. But he knew we could only really see them if they appeared to us in human form.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.