Declan Adams is a youthful, dedicated theatre company whose members exhibit great camaraderie and a true love for their work. And while a small handful of them really don’t belong on the professional stage, many are solid actors, and a few are quite good indeed. Here’s the problem. Mysteriously, they’ve chosen to focus all this wonderful dedication and talent on the works of William Shakespeare. I say mysteriously because the company’s capacity for handling Shakespeare’s work is shaky. Not terrible—no, not by a long shot—just shaky. And as a group, this just doesn’t appear to be their specialty. Mind you they try, with gusto and commitment, and without question, in part and in moments, they succeed. But ultimately, it’s like a brilliant basso attempting to sing a tenor aria. He’ll hit some of the notes, but surely not all. And while his singing talent may be evident, it’s not something you’d necessarily want to hear.
Declan Adams’ current production, Julius Caesar, has its share of those successful moments, but it still comes up short. Companies that specialize in Shakespeare should, ideally, have a deeper hold on the material than this. In his first time at the helm, company Artistic Producer Erwin Tuazon, despite his Shakespeare background, has directed a Caesar that, for all its efforts at being terribly dramatic, sorely lacks trajectory, build, drive and emotional stakes. The pace is laboriously slow and very little is played with convincing gravity or intensity. And while most of the players seem to understand the words they’re saying, few of them dig deeper than the surface: “Now I’m angry”; “I don’t like her”; “Now I’m giving a big speech.” They’re doing their best “serious acting” without fully grasping what’s going on. Their emotions often seem arbitrary, and sometimes they’re inexplicable. Moments after Caesar’s murder, Mark Antony’s messenger enters the senate chamber. Rather than trembling in fear for her life in this room full of blood-smeared assassins, she gives them sassy, snarky attitude—much in the same way kids do nowadays—as if giving them a piece of her mind, unaffected by the crumpled body of the dead leader that lies only a few feet away. Tuazon should have caught this glaring misunderstanding of the scene’s circumstances. This is just one of many such moments in the production. When ad-libs from the angry mob elicit howls of laughter from the audience, it ought to be taken as a sign that something has gone rather wrong with your Caesar.
In this version of the story, many of the male characters have become female. When done well, this kind of thing can be refreshing and bring exciting new ideas to the text. Here, Jessica Temple is a female Julius Caesar—a very interesting idea that might have worked had it been seen through with a bit more commitment, but under Tuazon’s direction, Ms. Temple’s Caesar lacks the authority and gravitas usually embodied by women who rule over men, and in a rare costuming misstep, she’s dressed winsomely in girly, flowing white, when a power suit with good pair of shoulder pads might have helped considerably. As it is, she’s more Gwyneth Paltrow than Hillary Clinton, making it difficult to buy her as a revered and respected leader. This power shortage is worsened by overly familiar treatment from other characters, particularly Mark Antony (played by company founder and Co-Artistic Director Jeff Holden) who romantically plays with her fingers, suggesting an affair. This weird departure from the story wasn’t thought through. Surely such behavior would never be carried out in full view of Caesar’s spouse, and more importantly not in public, where Caesar seeks to present the powerful, god-like image of an unshakable leader.
Most baffling is the moment when, upon arriving at the senate, Caesar and various senators pair up and dance together. The device is later repeated as a prelude to Caesar’s murder. Besides being a strange directorial choice, seeing Caesar twirled and dipped does little to repair her diminished status.
Cassius (also a woman in this production) is played by Lovelle Liquigan, a fine actress of great presence, clarity and power, at her best in her scenes opposite J. R. Esposito’s haunted and thoughtful Brutus. These are captivating, capable players. Still, and even as they plot Caesar’s murder—an act that could result in their deaths and will surely affect the fate of the entire known world—something is lacking in the stakes department. Eliza Kiss’ Portia is a significant standout. Her layered, passionate performance provides one of the most engaging and truthful moments of the evening and is one of the few that goes beyond the broad strokes.
The perky and adorable Lourdes Uribe is simply in the wrong play. She appears in several roles, including Antony’s messenger, and in each, seems to believe she’s there for comic relief, playing for laughs as Brutus’ servant, Lucius, and even as the doomed Cinna the Poet in what is normally among the most chilling scenes in the play. It’s like sticking a character from Three’s Company into Medea.
Frank Astran’s set is an imposing assembly of cement columns topped with wire fencing and framed in draped white fabric. It provides a sense of an imposing city and its halls of power. The design works well as a setting for the senate and various Roman homes, but not quite so well for the fields of war in Act Two.
In the costume department, director Tuazon triumphs, creatively combining various styles and eras into a beautifully unified stage picture of dark hues in tight, severe lines. Cassius wears a tough-looking black suit and no-nonsense stilettos; the soothsayer appears as a homeless protester, and citizens are convincingly blue-collar in caps and sweaters. Particularly against Astran’s light grey set, the dark palette works exceptionally well, and the garments (with the previously noted exception of Caesar’s dress) give great indications of the characters. Tuazon also chose the music, which is excellent.
It seems a shame for Declan Adams to expend its resources of talent and dedication on work that seems just beyond their reach. It would be exciting to see these same worthy performers take on some challenging and engaging modern works like Rhinoceros or 12 Angry Men or In God’s Country or Jean-Claude Van Italie’s Interview or even The Cradle Will Rock. Or perhaps they’re in need of more seasoned Shakespeare directors who could better guide and elevate their well-intentioned efforts. But to tackle Shakespeare without the necessary analytical tools is like trying to dig a tunnel with spoon.
Julius Caesar runs through September 27th, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7:30 at The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica CA 90405 (one block east of Main, between Rose & Marine). Tickets are $20. Reservations and information can be found at myspace.com/declanadamstheatre