Monday, October 21, 2013

The Donmar > St Ann’s Warehouse(s) all female production of Julius Caesar

"Girls! Girls! Girls!That’s what “theatrical” venues used to say about their female stars.  Phyllida Lloyd’s scintillating production of Julius Caesar is not titillating in the usual sense, and one would be foolish to call any of these women “girls.”  From London’s Donmar Warehouse to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, this Julius Caesar is the opposite of traditional, since traditionally Shakespeare’s plays were performed by all male casts.  This production turns the tables.  The conceit for this is the setting of the play in a women’s prison.

Fair warning:  It’s not your standard entrance to the theatre space either. The crowd gathers in the aromatic coffee shop next door to pick up tickets, then masses in front of a loading dock’s corrugated metal door waiting to enter.  We wait a long time.  When we finally get in there, the audience is treated like visitors to a women’s prison, with lots of rules — though no pat-downs.

The masks of Julius Caesar

It’s past eight (which the officious email that had gone out to ticketholders said was curtain time — no latecomers allowed in!) when that big metal door rolls shut a second time, and a different door opens. Gray-clad women enter, and the action begins.  We are rapt, captive not just because the scary corrugated doors are noisily closed and guarded.  Physically, emotionally, intellectually, we are captivated.  Perhaps a little nervous.

The female prisoners are broken, shuffling creatures, weighed down by the incarceration and the hierarchy of the prison population.  They are mean to one another, small cruelties at first, ready to explode any moment.  The women show new life as they take on the characters of the play, changing no words to fit their gender (although, running a little over two hours, this script has been heavily and well edited).  It’s still Rome, they’re still “men.” Besides cutting scenes in their entirety, the 35 named characters of the play are whittled down to 20 as played by the company of 14 women.

The opening scene features women holding masks before their faces — the masks all the same photograph of Frances Barber as Julius Caesar.  The opening scene of the original script is accomplished very quickly without any of the text, just behavior and those creepy masks.  There are occasional insertions reminding us where we are.  Like those gray sweats, although the attempt to make all the women alike and equally downtrodden does not entirely succeed.  They are individuals, some willingly submissive, some frightened to be otherwise.  Each one comes to vibrant and sometimes violent life as citizens and senators of Rome.  The time is now, and the music is rock, driven by a bass guitar and drum set.  Harsh, loud, percussive.  
Slayers with bloody hands
Harriet Walter’s brittle Brutus is stuck in her head — his head? — overthinks, tries to be upright, and spells doom to his cause and comrades.  Frances Barber’s Julius Caesar is a bully (which makes even more sense at the play’s end, which I won’t spoil), easily scarier than any man I’ve seen in the role.  Jenny Jules’ Cassius is lean and hungry, spoiling for a fight.  Cush Jumbo is a smooth and moving Mark Antony, and Susan Brown a cunning and repressed Casca.
Harriet Walter as Brutus
Scenes are pared down to the bone, sharp, concise.  Things are not all orderly, there are shouts, a bloodied nose, a substitution of one prisoner for another to move the play forward to its inevitable end.  At one point a guard yells out “Meds!” offering a flash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of this play and directed a staged reading of it once, also with an all woman cast.  I heard then how different all those famous speeches sound in a woman’s voice, from a female state of mind, a woman’s heart.  At St. Ann’s Warehouse, the language is as fresh and new as the interpretations.  This Julius Caesar is totally different while equally tragic.  It is harsh and no one wins.

This is a limited run, only to November 3, yet it’s not sold out — I highly recommend you run to catch this excellent, rather thrilling production.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play, hoping to hear those marvelous words and phrases in my head.

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Big Fish" Tells a Whopper

The thing about Big Fish is that it looks fabulous.  Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman knows how to set ′em up then pull out all the stops with energetic and/or synchronized dance numbers.  She overwhelms us.  Combining fantastical scenic design by Julian Crouch and imaginative Projection Design by Benjamin Pearcy, glittering lighting design by Donald Holder and the always fresh costume design by the ubiquitous William Ivey Long (he designed Norbert Leo Butz’s trousers to cling just enough to showcase his lovely bum, thank you very much), these fine theatrical pros have created a visual feast of a thousand delights. 

If only the music could keep pace with it.

In this carnival like atmosphere we are surrounded by Edward Bloom’s wondrous view of the world. Composer & lyricist Andrew Lippa’s contribution is outclassed by the rest.  Yes, it gives Butz and the sweet clear voice of Kate Baldwin a little fun, a little sorrow, and allowed Bobby Steggert to pierce the upper register.  But Mr. Lippa has not given us any tunes to stay with us as far as 52nd Street, however pretty or character-appropriate they seemed when sung by the excellent company.  Since this is a musical, one must pause — is all that razzmatazz, rather like special effects in a film that lost its plot along the way, there to make us ignore our disappointment with the unmemorable music, lyrics, and book?

Kate Baldwin is strong and sweet as the redhead Edward Bloom loves at first sight, while Kirsten Scott is equally effective as Jenny Hill, the girl he left behind. Special marks go to the young Zachary Unger whom I saw as young Will and later as Will’s son.  Bobby Steggert as Will is adept yet not inspiring; Krystal Joy Brown is charming as Will’s wife.

Excellent the company surely is, exemplified by the fact that I saw an understudy in the role of Amos Calloway the circusmaster.  Preston Truman Boyd, while he seemed a bit young for the role, stepped up with confidence, if not yet polish.

I don’t believe in applauding a performer because he or she shows up on time, so I didn’t applaud when Norbert Leo Butz made his first appearance as Edward Bloom.  Many did, however, yet it was a different sort of ovation: This was not people applauding because they saw a Star of stage or screen.  It was a wave of love.  Thus began a remarkable performance.

Norbert Leo Butz is our Everyman on that stage.  He makes suspension of disbelief in this magical musical easy.  He speaks, then suddenly you realize, oh, he’s singing now.  Effortless.  Beautiful.  There’s no transition.  He speaks, he sings, he walks, he dances.  He lives Edward Bloom on that stage and makes it all seem worthwhile.  For a while. 

The question is, can this show survive without Mr. Butz?  My presumption is… not for long. However luscious the production values are, I do not believe the book by John August (who also wrote the screen adaptation) or Mr. Lippa’s music can hold up without Mr. Butz’s astonishing and engaging emanation of love and hope.  Mr. Butz’s Edward is a man with dreams, and if life is too ordinary, he’ll tell the tales so as to make it wondrous. 

Mr. August’s book has left me hungry, and for that I am grateful.  While I saw the film and enjoyed it, I now wish to go further back in the life of Big Fish and read the original novel by Daniel Wallace.  There’s stuff in there that did not make it into this musical version, and I yearn for it.

The visual production of Big Fish will make you gasp and exclaim.  It’s wild and crazy, a gorgeous world overflowing with fields of daffodils, populated with circus giants and witches and a mermaid.  You won’t exit the theatre singing, but you will be happy.

It’s at the Neil Simon Theatre.  On 52nd Street. Where you will forget any music you heard as soon as you exit the theatre.  You will not, however, forget Norbert Leo Butz.

~ Molly Matera, signing off in search of a bookstore.