Shakespeare may be remembered for his great lines, but it’s the characters that make us want to revisit his plays. If the matter were simply quotations, a Bartlett’s would satisfy in place of an evening out. Maybe this is why Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and not Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language, has become the most widely cited Bard reference among active theater critics. Bloom, for all his dogmatic asides and crankiness, certainly clarified the peculiar gift of “inwardness” bestowed on Shakespeare’s protagonists. What draws us—and by extension actors—to the plays is the chance to encounter consciousness in dawning recognition of itself, grasping for answers where only questions reside, and testing the capacity to rethink what has previously been held as certainty.
Shakespeare in performance lives or dies by the quality of its acting. If two recent modern-dress productions—Theatre for a New Audience’s Julius Caesar and Classic Stage Company’s The Winter’s Tale—achieve only mixed results, it’s largely because their casts seem more intent on keeping pace with directorial maneuvers than following the hairpin turns of their characters’ interior logic. When will it be understood that Shakespeare is only distant or boring when the human nuance of his work is eclipsed by lively shenanigans desperate to entertain us?
Julius Caesar may be every high school English teacher’s favorite play, but it’s a more complicated work than meets the freshman eye. The text provides a kind of primer on Shakespeare ambiguity. Brutus’s assassination of Caesar, after all, has little to recommend it beyond Brutus’s “honourable” character. A precursor to Hamlet, this philosopher-turned-killer is either the right man for the wrong job, or the wrong man for the right job. Brutus (Thomas M. Hammond) fears the potential tyranny of a crowned Caesar and so wants to crush the “serpent’s egg” before it hatches. But though he may be superior to Cassius (Daniel Oreskes), the conspiracy ringleader who suffers more for his own slighted ego than the Roman republic, Brutus is also susceptible to error and expediency, as Shakespeare ultimately makes clear in his signature non-ideological (i.e., sublimely human) way.
Karin Coonrod, who has made a name staging the more obscure works in the Shakespeare canon (Henry VI and King John), has less success with this schoolkids’ classic. From the outset, when the dark-suited cast assembles in line formation to render a musical number in Latin, her production announces that it will try anything, short of mining its characters’ complexities and contradictions, to keep us from turning into a roomful of slumbering students. Though the music quickly gives way to more familiar tragedy, the general posturing and declamation of Coonrod’s acting mob drowns out Hammond’s soft-spoken and possibly even sensitive Brutus.
What this high-speed, intermission-less, and pointlessly “contemporary” Julius Caesar does offer is a clear plot outline, though one devoid of most of the subtleties that could deeply engage an adult audience. Cramped onto the Lucille Lortel’s awkward stage, this revved-up Shakespearean reduction provides more of an obstacle course for its actors, who need more time to translate their famous rhetoric into lived experience.
By comparison, Barry Edelstein’s direction of The Winter’s Tale allows the overstuffed drama to unfold at an unhurried tempo. Often elegant in its spare, imagistic 21st-century design, the production as a whole demonstrates an impressive understanding of Shakespeare’s parable of reckless loss and partial redemption. Yet, for all the resonantly artful tableaux, there’s a strange absence of authentic emotion preventing the far-fetched story from igniting into felt life.
One of the trickiest challenges posed by this late romance lies in the unaccounted phenomenon of Leontes’s sexual jealousy. Why does he turn so quickly and rabidly against his wife Hermione (Barbara Garrick) and childhood friend King Polixenes (Michel Gill)? Bloom offers the memorable sound bite that Leontes is his own Iago, though an actor needs to delve deeper to find clues into the pathology of vision that keeps the King of Sicilia perpetually confusing true and false. This is precisely what David Strathairn does not do, offering instead a generic portrait that growls and foams without psychological insight—he acts like a character trapped in a dark fable rather than a man haunted by the “spider” of his own fetid imagination.
More damaging still, the marital connection between Strathairn’s Leontes and Garrick’s Hermione has an impersonal air, which gravely lowers the stakes for all that ensues. As Paulina, the irreplaceable moral watchdog of the court, Mary Lou Rosato evokes genuine sympathy, though like everyone else around her, she’s forced to press a bit hard. This is especially the case when the action moves to a color-burst version of Bohemia, where Teagle F. Bougere’s Autolycus strains to sell the comic effect of his con games and the young attractive lovers, Perdita (Elizabeth Reaser) and Florizel (Gene Farber), prance around as though in a surreal Gap ad.
Still, there’s something unfailingly moving about the final reconciliation scene, where Shakespeare resurrects the supposedly dead Hermione and lends Leontes another chance to appreciate what he almost entirely destroyed. The magic, of course, is the author’s most reliable enchantment: character truth.