Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review - Julius Caesar (Coyote Laboratory, Inc.)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

I will admit to a certain amount of trepidation when I see a theatre company full of young people that refers to itself as being experimental, especially when they’re producing one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I tend to worry that I’ll be asked to sit on the floor while bunraku puppets are used instead of actors and the Bard’s language is jettisoned in order to find words that better “speak” to a young audience. I worry that in their youthful exuberance, they will shoot for style without bothering to look for substance.

While Coyote Laboratory is comprised of young performers, seems to be reaching out to a young audience (which based on the audience the night I attended, it appears to be doing rather well), and refers to itself as “an experimental arts laboratory,” they are most decidedly attempting to present both style and substance. Not every innovation they attempted worked, but in terms of an inaugural production, it bodes well for the company.

By presenting Julius Caesar, Coyote Laboratory is using both the popularity of one of the best-known plays in the English language and the current political situation to their advantage. They do quite a bit to put their own mark on it. Most notable is the use of Turner Smith’s set. Despite being in a rather cavernous theatre space, Smith has carved out a small playing area, built of unadorned plywood platforms, surrounded it on three sides by the audience, and enclosed the entire thing in chain link fencing. The end result looks rather like a ring for a cage fight. By placing actors behind that fence during the mob scenes, the audience is effectively incorporated into the mob, which is a very nice touch. This incorporation of the audience gave the play a more immediate sense of urgency.

There are two other innovations that while interesting, are not equally effective. First, Smith (or perhaps the company, as Coyote is meant to be a collaborative effort) changes the sexes of the two sets of married couples so that Caesar and Brutus are played by women (Kyle Kate Dudley and Kimberly Wong, respectively) and Calpurnia and Portia by men (Doug Harvey and Harry John Shephard). This cross-gender casting is disorienting in the case of Wong and Shephard, who never quite seem comfortable playing the opposite sex, especially in each other’s presence. Dudley and Harvey however make their interactions work to the point that gender never seems to intrude.

The second deals with the troubling issue of what an actor is supposed to do while his or her character lies dead on stage. Normally, they simply lie very still and wait for the scene to end, so they can make a discreet exit. In this production, death isn’t the end for the character. In fact, once dead both Dudley and Wong continue to react to the action on stage. They are no longer Caesar and Brutus, per se, but seem to be some sort of feral spirits, still feeling the residue of their emotions at death, but without the ability to comprehend what is going on around them. Regardless of the intent, it is a very moving and clever twist.

The performances in Julius Caesar are strong overall, and though the company prefers to be thought of as strictly as an ensemble, I’d like to commend four actors who did particularly well: Seth Andrew Bridges as Casca, Marian Brock as Ligarius, Whit Lyenberger as Anthony, and Doug Harvey as Calpurnia.

Coyote Laboratory’s Julius Caesar is a very solid first production; this is a company to watch out for.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Turner Smith
Kept by Karina Martins
Lights designed by John Robichau and Kyle Kate Dudley
Cloakes designed by Kimberly Wong
Masks designed by Elizabeth Spano and Turner Smith
Fights choreographed by Seth Andrew Bridges
Sets designed by Turner Smith
Dramaturgy: Karmenlara Seidman and John Robichau
Weapons provided by Dan O’Driscoll

Created and Performed by Steve Boyle, Seth Andrew Bridges, Marian Brock, Alex Coppola, Kyle Kate Dudley, Doug Harvey, Whit Leyenberger, Shannon Pritchard, Harry John Shephard, Elizabeth Spano, Kimberly Wong.

Teatro LA TEA
Clemente Soto Velez Center
107 Suffolk St., 2nd Floor

Closed March 15th