Prior to the second act of the American Repertory Theater production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” jazz chanteuse Marianne Solivan sings Peggy Lee’s ode to ennui, “Is That All There Is.” The song could be speaking for the audience in response to French helmer Arthur Nauzyciel’s bold, bewildering and single-minded concept: that the entire goings- on in the Bard’s Ancient Rome are simply a dream had by Brutus’ slave boy, Lucius.
Think David Lynch ambiguity, Richard Kelly’s surreal style, Kennedy-era fashion and the monochromes and cigarettes of TV’s “Mad Men” and you have some idea of this cold and oh-so-cool dreamscape. While it’s intriguing to thematically contemplate (briefly) and be visually intrigued (for a bit longer), the glacially paced production soon falls into the style-over-substance category of theatrical indulgences often in evidence at risk-taking theaters like ART.
Designer Riccardo Hernandez creates some startling images on ART’s epic stage that will look good as photographs on its theater lobby wall. But they belie the work’s smug tedium and fuzzy thinking.
Nauzyciel takes the richness of Shakespeare’s somnambulant imagery (“Didst though dream, Lucius? “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly.” “Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber”) and creates a premise that is tenuous, inconsistent and dramatically comatose.
In a work filled with some of the Bard’s best speeches, the characters are removed from their words and remote from each other. When Cassius (Mark L. Montgomery) woos Marcus Brutus (Jim True-Frost) over to his conspiratorial cause, both actors are on opposite sides of the stage, giving their words a presentational style and robbing the language of its richness, subtlety and humanity.
The dialogue is given almost a hipster’s stream-of-consciousness riff, disconnected from meaning and more focused on poses than people. Both men fail to tap into their character’s complex torment, appearing simply distant and dull. Likewise, Portia and Calpurnia (Sara Kathryn Bakker) are played interchangeably by the same actress as bloodless Hitchcock blondes.
Sometimes the text’s power breaks through despite directorial intent, notably in the funeral oration by Mark Antony (James Waterston, hardly dynamic but at least semi-human), and Remo Airaldi slips in some real fear, paranoia and rage as Casca. But Thomas Derrah’s Caesar is a shallow, champagne-loving leader in love with his own celebrity, and the Soothsayer (Kunal Prasad) is one bad beatnik joke.
The dreaming slave boy Lucius is played by a sweet and silent Jared Craig — oh, did we mention he’s also a mute, giving his speeches in sign language? Shakespeare’s songs for the boy are replaced by a jazz combo in the corner of the stage, performing songs with lyrics of leaden irony. (“The Party’s Over” ends the corpse-ridden play as the cast then breaks out into a wild dance in the afterlife.)
Design team fulfills the assignment to create an arthouse environment: James Schuette designed the early ’60s costumes, and Scott Zielinski’s lighting goes from ambient dim to the harsh glare of arena spotlights. Hernandez pulls an 11 o’clock effect by having an automobile descend hood-down — only Freud knows why — slowly, creekily, from the flies to the stage just as the final body count begins towards the conclusion of this production, which is bad dream, bad accident.