A chamber Julius Caesar set in feudal Japan

Seattle Shakespeare Company mounts a vigorous, mostly successful version of a good play for this political season.
Seattle Shakespeare Company mounts a vigorous, mostly successful version of a good play for this political season.

The Seattle Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, now on their Center House stage through January 27, exhibits the company's customary vigor, imagination and joy. It also reveals aspects not yet achieved by this maturing organization. Seattle Shakespeare bills this as a "chamber" Caesar. One expects a modest room adapted for the purpose, simple sets, a small cast each with several roles. Chamber drama revels in language and character: it cuts away the pomp and bustle of a theater and the distractions of lush sets, brilliant lighting, triumphal music. Like a chamber setting of an orchestral piece, it should be modest and clean. In fact, all of Seattle Shakespeare's productions have some qualities of chamber drama. The space is intimate, the sets and costumes simple, the acting spirited, the fourth wall regularly knocked down. There's a good cheer here more sophisticated than a community theatre's, but not so stuffy as a big union house like the Seattle Rep. And this production attempts to justify its "chamber" claim by double-casting and by taking liberties with the script - mostly cuts but also some additions, mostly from Shakespeare. Yet while the set is simple, it seems - with its multi-screen video projection - at least as complex as the usual straightforward physical production which we are accustomed to from this company. What's missing is a necessary attention to detail in the speech and interaction of characters. Some lines are hurried and some relationships unclear. The actors' ages, genders, and relative charisma tend to muddy their roles in the unfolding plot. Cassius, for example, is strongly played and most credible in the feudal Japanese context of this production. But because this actor's performance is no less sympathetic than Brutus', we miss the moral contrast between them which the play demands. Setting Caesar in feudal Japan is a excellent idea with much potential. It recalls not only the work of legendary stage director Tadashi Suzuki, but also Kurosawa's film adaptations of King Lear, Macbeth and other Western stories. A second derivative like this - a dramatic version of a film version of a drama - creates interesting resonances of memory and interpretation. And there's no better play than Julius Caesar for this concept: the same rigid code of honor infuses our visions of classical Rome and of feudal Japan. But, used as we are to seeing contemporary Japanese visions of that place and time, the contemporary American vision seems a bit watered down: the actors' movements less crisp, the social hierarchy less rigid, the emotions less contained. The play is not so much Caesar's own story as it is the tragedy of his friend and murderer Brutus, whose sense of honor sets him against Caesar, against his own co-conspirators, his fellow citizens and ultimately the exigencies of politics and war. He fails as a comrade, a leader, and a general; does he fail, too, as a Roman? Does an honorable man's unbending virtue overshadow the futility of the actions to which it prompts him? It's a timely question in this political year. Wisely, director Gregg Loughridge lets us determine any such present relevance on our own. Producers of Shakespearean tragedies often lose their way with earnest dullness. Here, the character of Cinna is deployed to engage the audience from the start and make us complicit in the unfolding action. We are incited to cheer, to recite, to speak lines; we are pointed out, waved at, our hands are shaken. It's a bold move to cast the audience as the mob of Romans who regularly feature in the scenes and dialogue: the "friends, Romans, countrymen" of the play do not show great wisdom or constancy. But this boldness pays off, and the exuberant removal of the fourth wall at once delights and disquiets us.


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