Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday Night on the Lower East Side: The Drilling Company presents "Julius Caesar" at Shakespeare in the Parking Lot on Ludlow and Broome Streets

Tonight we were lucky enough to be at (and to get a seat at) the Drilling Company's final performance of its summer 2010 season to see its acclaimed and very popular production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot.

We're amateur bloggers, not professional theater reviewers, and we view what we do here (our hobby) as reports (filled with irrelevant personal meanderings), definitely not reviews. This production has already been reviewed by critic Anita Gates in the New York Times, by David Sheward in Backstage, by August Schulenberg at, and probably elsewhere. We're loath to pretend that we're anything more than we are, just some cheap old guy who likes to go to free summer events in New York and who can't take a decent pic to save his life.

We liked this version of the play a lot, and so, it appeared, did most of the overflow crowd who quickly took up all the seats and then crammed around standing for over two hours. We've already seen a good Julius Caesar by EBE Ensemble in Prospect Park this summer, and wrote about our feelings about the play since first reading it in 1965.

We think director Hamilton Clancy, who played the title role, and his actors got to an aspect of the political drama that we hadn't seen touched on in quite the same way before. We also thought the reviewers underrated some of the performers: yeah, the blazing standouts were the two women in the two principal (pun not intended) roles, Selene Beretta as Cassius and the spellbinding Ivory Aquino as Marc Antony, who rethinks the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech into something readymade for YouTube.

But there were also other good performances, and none of them were ever less than good. Also, it seemed to us that this play worked (and maybe this is our own senile imagining) as social satire and in particular as a devastating critique of the anti-teacher tenure of the current New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, and his even more corporate-minded patron Mayor Bloomberg - as well as of the similar-minded CUNY Chancellor Michael Goldstein and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and probably other efficiency-minded, business-oriented big city school superintendants.

"Chancellor" and "Caesar" have a similar ring and doth become the mouth as well. And that is the genius of director Clancy's now well-known transposition of the intrigue of ancient Rome to a contemporary school board (unmistakeably New York's: in probably the most underrated performance, Bill Green as a rumpled Casca with a yardstick and safety scissors as his weapons, his tucked-in tie, little mustache and probable toupee, is an archetype of the weary, now-incompetent bureaucrat left over from the Lindsay administration in practically every city agency).

That makes Mark Jeter's world-weary, hamishe Brutus the well-meaning union leader who's risen from the ranks of some high school's social studies department and Beretta's Cassius the firebrand gadfly who makes every meeting at least half an hour longer with her wild but on-target bitter criticism; you know she's as correct in seeing the big picture as she is an annoying blowhard.

Put school system stalwarts like these - parents, teachers, administrators - in a situation where the crown is handed over to someone who's conquered the corporate world, dominating it like a rich-guy colossus (Caesar), and his party-girl aide with a bottom-line mentality , the heart of a corporate shark and the ability to manipulate the media and thus the crowd (Antony) - and you get a recipe for assassination and chaos.

There are just wonderful touches throughout this, from the typical New York placard-wielding demonstrators, the garment-center dressmaker's dummy (representing the empty-headedness of Caesar's administration) and Steven Lee Edwards's funny and satirical campaign and country songs to the many little bits of business which make this a very New York-centric political thriller, and so it seems perfectly natural that the actors may be drowned out sporadically by police sirens, idling buses, boom boxes, and the occasional passing homeless nutjob.

Most of all, for us, it was the performance of the cast, even in minor roles - such as Amanda C. Fuller as a variety of Manhattan street tropes, Jared Benn as the guy in love with bullet points, Jordan Feltner as what passes for the hip guy among big-city schoolteachers, Jared Benn as the disgruntled clown from Middle Village: all people you can see every day on the Q train. (Caesar and Antony go by limousine, and Calpurnia [a moving Leila Okafor] hasn't left her Park Avenue five-bedroom apartment in years.) And they're all going to be losers in a world where young clueless yuppies (Marianna Caldwell as a callow Octavius) are now in charge.

We were really tired tonight and sort of had to drag ourselves to the parking lot at Broome and Ludlow (luckily it's close to Williamsburg), but we're enormously glad we got to see the Drilling Company's Julius Caesar on the final night. The Ides of next July will eventually come, and since it's a Friday night, there'll be free Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.

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