Although it's sometimes hard to imagine in many modern productions, music is a fundamental part of the original experience of Shakespeare's plays. Director Arthur Nauzyciel infuses his American Repertory Theatre production of Julius Caesar with music, up to and including a post-production "jig", reinterpreted as a Solid Gold pop dance number.
Nauzycial is adamant that "all theatre takes place in the here and now," but the production design is meant to nod at a '60s Rat Pack/Camelot mise en scène, thus the greatest part of the music is played by the jazz trio of Marianne Solivan, Eric Hofbauer and Blake Newman. Far from providing background interludes, the musicians interact with the actors throughout the play. As the audience returns from intermission, Mark L. Montgomery, Sara Kathryn Bakker (Cassius and Portia/Calpurnia), and some others set up a little soirée with the band to the tune of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is" until Jim True-Frost's Brutus glares at them to quit it so he can get on with his speechifying. Solivan, in turn, takes the stage in lieu of Lucius in Brutus' tent, with an apt insertion of "Suicide is Painless." The music swings, and Solivan's vocals, especially, are smooth and commanding and hit all the right notes.
But even a live band is not enough to satisfy Nauzycial, who along with sound designer David Remedios, adds somewhat generic-sounding mood music behind several scenes. Further, James Waterston's Mark Antony, grieving after Caesar's assassination, sways and lip-syncs to Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage."
If all that sounds a little mismatched and overwhelming, it is. As per the program material, Nauzyciel is trying to create a dreamscape, wherein "the dead are replaying their lives through the dreams of a deaf-mute child." The deaf-mute child in question is, in this case, Lucius, played by Jared Craig, who signs all his lines but one, and who remains onstage—sometimes watching, sometimes lying down and oblivious, and sometimes in Superman pajamas—throughout the play as a silent witness.
To establish this otherworldliness, Nauzyciel summons up a mélange of techniques up to and including C.I.A.-approved interrogation tactics to keep the audience unsteady and to shock us out of a complacent viewing. Actors speak their lines standing still and upstage rather than interacting with their fellows. Some hurry while others move in slow motion; at other times they perform synchronized, ritualistic actions. Antony dons an Ethan-Hawke's-Hamlet-esque hat for no apparent reason. Blank spaces, either in the shape of lines deliberately unspoken, or daggers and swords that characters only pretend they are holding, abound.
The theater, itself, becomes a confusing and even hostile place. Set designer Riccardo Hernandez backdrops the play in a repeating and overlapping series of photos of the empty theater, and suspends a black Cadillac over the action of the later acts, which lighting designer Scott Zielinsky illuminates in murky crimson. Early on, the lighting is gloomy and many of the actors are often hidden in the shadows, while during the funeral orations, a combination of smoke and harsh light directed both at the stage and at the audience makes it almost impossible to look at the performance.
Of all the actors on stage, only Thomas Derrah as Julius Caesar really makes an impression as a character. He's a confident, charismatic elder statesman who has bought into his own hype. Bakker is perhaps a Marilyn-ish Calpurnia, and much too cuddly a Portia, but other than the physical, she never makes a connection. Both True-Frost and Montgomery deliver their lines well enough, but are denied a chance to interact, save one fleetingly frustrating scene when they've made up after fighting over supplies and imagined slights. Unfortunately, with so little characterization earlier in the play, the effort falls flat. Waterson as Mark Antony is inconsistently mild-mannered and, again, we're just not offered enough emotion to know what's really going on in his head. I suspect that, as they're all supposed to be spectres, there's not much that's supposed to be going on in any of their heads. All this is disappointing, because you sense that several of them could have turned in very moving performances had things gone differently.
The conspirators, drawn from the ranks of the ART's company move as a pack. They, as are all the actors save Bakker, are costumed by James Schuette in identical black suits with skinny ties. As the play degenerates into conflict, most everyone strips off their jackets and some their shirts, and everyone gets increasingly bloody.
It's difficult to deduce why Nauzyciel pairs all this alienation with Shakespeare's play, because rather than giving new insight to the work, it simply highlights what this production lacks and what Shakespeare has in overabundance—human characters and connections. Although Nauzyciel's techniques sometimes highlight the raw language, it only reminds us that the language means more than simply words. Shakespeare uses language to create characters and worlds that belong to us, in real life, and it works best taken straight, not at a disassociated distance.