Silly Shakespeare Double-Feature: ‘Caesar Maximus’ by We Players AND ‘War of the Roses’ by Cal Shakes

COMPOSITE - Caesar Maximus by We Players AND War of the Roses by Cal Shakes

“Now remember – and I can’t stress this enough – this is a talkie!
So I want the full gamut of emotions from every actor in every scene.”
– Harold Zoid (as written by Patric M. Verrone), Futurama, “That’s Lobstertainment!” (s03e08 – 25 February 2001)

A while back I saw and reviewed a local production of Hedda Gabler (feel free to hit the Search above to find it). It was a lovely production for the eye, but a grave miscalculation in direction. It tried to turn one of Ibsen’s quintessential dramas in a farce. The result was a cringe-inducing experience that crossed – nay, quantum-leaped over – the line between “reinterpretation” and “missing the point”. (See also: my review of Ubuntu’s take on Streetcar.)

At this point, it’s almost a given that a Shakespeare production will be anything other than its original Elizabethan setting. (If you want that, go to a Ren Faire.) When such a universal writer leaves behind such a rich body of work that’s all public domain, it’s logical that said work will be interpreted every which way. But the trap into which most adaptors fall is trying to live up to the grand reputation of the work in the wrong way – Shakespeare’s work has such a reputation for grand declaration (and rightfully so) that many adaptors either forget or ignore the rich nuance in his text.

Unfortunately, that’s the very problem made by two recent productions by two great Bay Area companies – both of whom have mastered The Bard’s work in the past.

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If there’s one good thing about Golden Gate Park’s sparse and confounding outdoor maps, it’s that it’s easy for nature-walkers like myself to get lost and take in the woodland beauty. Unfortunately, it makes people like me – those who refuse to ever turn on the GPS on their phones – a bit turned around when looking for a theatre show set in the park. Though I was born in SF and have seen We Players shows before (the last one, Midsummer of Love, I also saw in Golden Gate Park), I still stumbled into the Academy of Sciences mere minutes before the show was about to begin.

Thankfully, the show didn’t begin on the dot. Even when it did, we were treated to a pre-show of jugglers, acrobats, and tricksters (the show is co-produced with the SF Circus Center) to keep us amused as we flipped through the Victorian-era newspaper that serves as the show’s program. All of this nicely dovetails into Emily Stone’s “Soothsayer” (Stone is a dead-ringer for Brave’s Merida) guiding us in and out of the scenes around the Music Concourse.

The atmosphere is perfect, but director Ava Roy (We Players’ artistic director and co-founder) occasionally missteps by going too big at times when it would do best to pull back. This is best exemplified in Libby Oberlin’s performance as Caesar. Yes, Caesar was one of history’s most notorious populist personalities – this show makes the parallels between he and a certain spray-tanned nutcase are none-too-subtle – but every line from Oberlin’s mouth is shouted rather than spoken. They were clearly trying for a larger-than-life personality, but wound up with “town crier”. I’ve never seen Oberlin perform before, but even reliable local talents (the great Rotimi Agbabiaka plays Marc Antony) seem to be directed to “Go big! No, go bigger!”

Still, there are good performances through most of the show. Stone’s aforementioned Soothsayer and Lauren Hayes’ Calpurnia are stand-outs for the scenes in which they aren’t going over-the-top. Conspiring scenes are directed well and show off the skills of Alan Coyne, Britt Lauer (Portia), Chris Steele (Casca), and Joseph Schommer (Brutus). And Roy makes excellent use of the park’s fountain areas, amphitheater, and tunnels beneath the roads, one of which serves as the setting for the play’s climax.

Still, the play goes on a bit too long when it shouldn’t have. Caesar’s death – shown here as a full-blown fight scene with Caesar all-but-besting the conspirators in combat – seems to extend to the point where you just wish they’d kill the fucker already. And while scenes like the one between Brutus and Portia have a wonderful sexual tension, the scene of Calpurnia’s bloody dream seems gratuitous for the sake of gratuity. (And why is Calpurnia stuck in the background for Caesar’s death and all that follows?)

All in all, this is handsomely-produced show that makes excellent use of the environment where it’s staged, the lovely costumes by Brooke Jennings, the live musicians, and the contemporary political climate. Unfortunately, the pieces don’t make for a fully compelling whole.

GRADE: C

Caesar Maximus is scheduled to run until the 30th of September at The Music Concourse of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco
The show runs roughly 90 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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Like the We Players show, Cal Shakes clearly found the contemporary political landscape the perfect one in which to stage one of The Bard’s most famous political tales. And, like the We Players show, the ambition of the project exceeded the execution. At nearly four hours, it’s hard to believe this show made major cuts to its source material – this show is stuffed like a tin of sardines.

I’ve always loved the so-called “War of the Roses,” especially as interpreted by Shakespeare. Though Game of Thrones seems to be everyone’s current go-to when thinking of medieval machinations, the Lannisters and Starks pale in comparison to the Yorks and Lancasters. With the exception of The Borgias, I can’t really think of any other major European family whose bloody dealings have interested me. Shakespeare covered a lot of ground in the four plays adapted here. Trying to mash them all together doesn’t really do them any favors.

If there’s one moment that perfectly sums up my feelings about this production, it would have to be in the show’s latter half. Elizabeth is told Edward is dead… then the “wife and mother” is told to get over it a few seconds later. I know I often complain in these reviews about actors and directors adding “air” to scenes that don’t need it, but there’s also such a thing as characters taking time when need be. There’s no such taking time in this show, as it blazes through the stories like The Flash on a meth binge. The careful characterizations of Shakespeare’s trilogy are flown by here.

And then there are the performances. Like the We Players show above, Cal Shakes was given some of the Bay Area’s best stage talent, but had them go for over-the-top camp at all the wrong times. Oh sure, great local actors Cat Luedtke, Sarita Ocón, and Aldo Billingslea get great moments, but those moments are contradicted by badly-calculated “big” performances, such as one with Billingslea and the also talented Jomar Tagatac bawling on opposite sides of the stage. Aysan Celik in particular seems to have been told to crank her performance up to “11”, which is a shame, because she’s the most compelling when she brings it down a few notches.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: Danny Scheie as Richard. I can’t recall having ever seen Scheie perform before, so I can’t say whether or not his performance here is really “against type”. What I can say is that is performance is all wrong. As I look down at my notes for the show, I see that I’ve written things like “Paul Lynde,” “Charles Nelson Reilly”, and “bad Jim Bakker impersonation” whenever Scheie was on stage, which is the entire second half. “Scenery-chewing” doesn’t begin to describe it. I don’t know how much was actor’s choice and how much was director’s, but I got the impression that this was done by someone who utterly despised the material and wanted it broadcast to the world. It doesn’t say anything about the character or fit into the aesthetic specially-made for the show. If stuffing four plays into turns the show into a sinking ship, Scheie’s performance completely capsizes it.

Thankfully, director Eric Ting (Cal Shakes’ artistic director) made sure that the show absolutely killed (no pun intended) on a technical level. Ting knows that the story of the battle for the throne is essentially a chess game where the pieces speak. As such, his staging of his actors reminded me of a chess board in the best possible way. That’s quite an accomplishment, given that Nina Ball’s set has a circular base with the thrown in the middle. Above it sits a forest of white-leaved trees that become the setting for several deaths and heads on pikes. At this point, it’s genuinely hard for me to compliment Nina Ball’s work without just fawning – she’s that damn good.

Anna Oliver’s costumes are, for lack of a better term, envy-inducing. Jiyoun Chang’s lights are creative, but some of Brendan Aames’ sounds work better in concept than in practice. Aames has musician Josh Pollock’s voice bounce all around the amphitheater as the unseen Catesby, but rather than being atmospheric, it just makes you wonder why you can’t see anyone walking through the audience (which several of the cast members do). I did, however, enjoy the music by Pollock and composer Byron Au Yong.

Having worked with the SF Opera several times, I had the privilege of taking part in this year’s four-part, multi-night production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I have to wonder what Cal Shakes’ show would have looked like had they similarly staged The War of the Roses four nights a week for multiple weeks? I’m guessing the challenge would have been getting audiences to come back for the full story, but the benefit would have been giving every character and plot point the necessary room to breathe. Unfortunately, the over-the-top performances might have also come along, and those were tough to watch in a single abridged show.

The War of the Roses is what happens when several fantastic pieces form a less-than-stellar puzzle.

GRADE: C

The War of the Roses is scheduled to run until the 15th of September at the Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA.
The show runs nearly 4 hours with one 15-min. intermission and one 5-min. “breather”.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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