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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: August ::
Jarring Experience at Ashland
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1805  Tuesday, 26 August 2002

From:           Al Magary <
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Date:           Monday, 26 Aug 2002 12:52:08 -0700
Subject:        Jarring Experience at Ashland

On a trip to the Northwest we stopped at Ashland and saw Julius Caesar
in the Angus Bowmer Theater.  This is Laird Williamson's production of
unknown vintage but was definitely late 20th century.  The stage,
constantly as dark and dangerous as the Dungeons of Barad-dur, was
dominated--nearly taken over--by three enormous metallic sculptures, not
unlike compacted cars.  These were shifted for different scenes, as were
some zebra-striped police barricades.  The rest of the sets and props
could be counted on one hand.  Caesar's corpse was wheeled about in a
gaudy casket.

The costumes were vaguely 1930s European:  the plebs of Rome looked and
behaved like Soviet agitators, Caesar and entourage were initially
dressed as for the opening of La Scala, Cassius as something like a
radical philosophy professor, Octavius like an SS officer (played as
sympathetically, too).

All of JC was there, including the long and tiring anticlimax after the
funeral orations to the battle of Philippi.  The audience was polite,
attentive, unprotesting even when the ghost of Brecht appeared--that is,
an anti-war ditty that was tossed into Act V:  "The noble Duke of
York/He had ten thousand men/He marched them up to the top of the
hill/And marched them down again."

My college-freshman daughter, who went to an academic high school but
somehow missed JC, likewise ancient history, was mystified by the
politics but as a child of R-rated movies understood the assassination
well enough.  The program, now loaded with material about all of
Ashland's 11 plays, had a brief non-explanation of JC that linked the
play to the darker days of the 20th century.  This kind of light
illuminates nothing.

I guess I could have gone away from Ashland at this point thinking,
Well, that *is* one way to do Shakespeare, and gone on to see the
greater calamity of Mt. St. Helens.  But the next morning we went on the
backstage tour.  The Bowmer had been transformed for the Italian comedy
_Saturday, Sunday, Monday_ by Eduardo de Filippo, with stage rebuilt and
scrupulously arranged as the dining area in an apartment, so real it
could be a picture in a style magazine.  In the sparkling New Theater,
which this year replaced the Black Swan, the stage was set for _Playboy
of the West Indies_ by Mustapha Matura, as a realistic, open-air
Caribbean bar.  On the other hand, on the Elizabethan Stage, the set for
_Titus Andronicus_, incomplete as we toured, appeared to be a pair of
frames as big as steel girders, incongruous against the Globe-like
stage.

Why is it that with Shakespeare, anything goes?  At Ashland, it seems,
20th century works are played realistically, with real sets and
costumes, to enhance the text and performance, while Shakespeare must be
so universalized and contemporary and edgy that all the plays could as
well be staged in a nightclub or spaceship or kindergarten room or
police interrogation room, with costumes and props picked up at garage
sales, and they could still charge $28 to $58 per seat.  Why not?  It's
Shakespeare; anything goes.

Al Magary

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