Julius Caesar

Ashland Shakespeare: out of chaos

This season's four Shakespeare shows – "Henry IV One and Two," "Julius Caesar," "Merry Wives" – ripple across thematic borders

ASHLAND – At first glance, this season’s slate of four Shakespeare plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival feels like a game of “one of these things is not like the other”: Henry IV Part One and Two are an obvious pairing, and they join up with The Merry Wives of Windsor via the character of Falstaff, who appears in all three (a number that leaves him tied with Prince Hal for the second-most appearances of a single character in separate Shakespeare plays, one behind Margaret of Anjou). Then there’s Julius Caesar. Well, that political tragedy’s tone isn’t so far off from the Henry IV plays, but then what about Merry Wives?

For all the plays’ dissimilarities, a closer look reveals rich thematic threads that lend OSF’s Shakespearean season a sense of cohesion, and a subtle but highly relevant message. All of these plays, which continue in repertory in Ashland through mid-October or later, are concerned with the making and breaking of relationships, and with efforts to define community out of chaos.


“Henry IV, Part One”: Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante) prepares to bid her wife Lady Percy (Nemuna Cessay) farewell before joining her father’s rebellion on the battlefield. Photo: Jenny Graham

The two parts of Henry IV make up a sort of mini-repertory in the small Thomas Theatre, with almost all of the actors in them appearing only in those two plays, and casting carrying through from one part to the next. Jeffrey King returns from last year’s Richard II—then, he played the ambitious usurper Bolingbroke, now not-so-firmly settled into his status as King Henry IV.


Revenge tragedy, political farce

The Public Theatre kills off a Trump-like Julius Caesar, and the outrage flies. What happens when theater and politics clash.

It’s the murder heard ’round the Web. Stab-stab-stab, and the emperor’s dead. Across vast stretches of Blue America, a metaphorical wish has been fulfilled. And lo, a righteous and avenging fury has swept across the nation from stage right, and the shouting heads have shouted ’til they’re blue in the face, and the mighty money spigot has cranked shut. New York’s Public Theatre has done the unthinkable in its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. It’s dressed up JC to look like Donald Trump, and allowed the assassination to go on (quite explicitly, according to the reviews), and the play to proceed to the perpetrators’ plummet from the heights, felled by the hubris of their own violent act.

The cultural world is unlikely to have a flashier flash point this summer, although considering the political craziness of the moment, all bets are off. A production of a classic play about politics has itself entered the political theater, where the stakes are higher and the action’s vastly more ruthless. It’s at once a tragedy and a farce, on a level that The Public’s director Oskar Eustis might not have anticipated, even though he courted the controversy.

“Murder of Caesar,” Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas, Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany

Agitators have rushed the stage and disrupted several performances, loudly shouting canned slogans: “Liberal hate kills!” “Goebbels will be proud!” “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands!” (This is the same Steve Scalise, shot at baseball practice by a looney who had also been a Bernie Sanders supporter, who has proudly touted his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.) One such interruption came from an “investigative journalist” and right-wing operator named Laura Loomer, whom up to that point I had had the extreme pleasure of never having heard. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” she shouted, perhaps in defense of the candidate of the right who suggested that his loyal Second Amendment supporters might have a solution to the distressing outrages of his liberal election opponent. Corporate sponsors Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, aghast at the thought that their feel-good marketing support of free theater in the park might make them targets of a backlash that could cost them business, promptly withdrew their backing – and in the process, created a backlash to the backlash that almost certainly will cost them business. Shakespeare festivals across the country (including Oregon’s in Ashland) that had nothing to do with The Public or its Julius Caesar drew vitriolic complaints and even, in some cases, threats of violence from an aroused right-wing faithful. It all made, if nothing else, for “good TV.”


Swimming in a Shakespeare sea

Ready, Portland? The city's about to binge on the Bard with the Complete Works Project. Why? Because it's there.

A while ago I wondered where all the Shakespeare had gone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lately I’ve been wondering something of the opposite: what’s Portland going to do with all of this Shakespeare?

By now you might have heard that the city’s theater companies and academic institutions have taken a vow to produce the entire canon in the next two years. “37 plays, 2 years, 1 city,” the sponsoring Complete Works Project trumpets its intentions.

Henry Fuseli, "Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers," c. 1812, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, Tate Britain, London

Henry Fuseli, “Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers,” c. 1812, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, Tate Britain, London

That’s a lot of blank verse, and otherwise. A lot of murders, and political plots, and mistaken identities, and magical spells, and belly laughs, and meddlesome ghosts, and young lovers, and comic foils, and plays within the plays, and drunken fools, and hot-tempered teenagers, and fairyland creatures, and weird sisters, and ring tricks, and dukes and kings and cutthroats and cutpurses.

The binge begins officially on April 23, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, with a free kickoff celebration three days later at the Gerding Theater at the Armory (where Portland Center Stage’s current Othello is being staged), and ends on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. (And in Ashland, artistic director Bill Rauch has allayed Bardolators’ fears by announcing that, in spite of cutting back to just three Shakespeares in the 2015 season, the festival by itself will produce the entire canon over the next 10 years.)

Why do this thing? On its Web page, the project answers its own rhetorical question: “Why on Earth not? If we can, we must!”

This is a bit like the mountaineer George Mallory’s response to a query in 1923 about why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Mallory, who had failed in attempts to reach the peak the previous two years and would die the following year in yet a third expedition, famously and perhaps sarcastically replied, “Because it’s there.”


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