Thanks to the Crossing the Line Festival, sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Française, the incomparable Italian theater director Romeo Castellucci finally had the chance to present his work in New York City. On October 1 and 2, his precise, stone-hard Julius Caesar. Spared Parts. was performed in Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan, a neoclassical temple on a site steeped in American history.
Long a darling of the European festival circuit, Castellucci and his Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio have since the 1980s presented a visually driven, philosophical theater, often with classical references and the provocative presence of animals and the animality of humans. Yet despite such laurels as a lifetime achievement award from the Venice Biennale, Castellucci had until now been kept from crossing the Hudson. Meanwhile, the visionary Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University in New Jersey had produced Castellucci four times.
In his New York premiere, Castellucci did not disappoint. The architecture of his adaptation of Julius Caesar was as solid as the marble of Federal Hall.
He pared the text to two short excerpts: the throwaway comic scene with which the play begins and its most famous speech, Antony’s funeral oration for the assassinated Caesar. Shakespeare is inevitably performed in some kind of adaptation, to be sure, but Castellucci’s is rather extreme, though characteristic. In his Inferno, at the Festival d’Avignon in 2008, a film of which was show at CUNY’s Segal Theater Center this past week in connection with his New York debut, Dante’s text was omitted entirely.
In the first segment of Caesar, an actor inserted an endoscope into his throat to show his speech organs at work as he played both characters in the opening scene in Italian, with English supertitles above in the rotunda. The oval video projection of his throat as he spoke displayed active slimy pink tissues, simultaneously repulsive, vulnerable, and threatening. Castellucci’s work uncomfortably draws attention to the body and aging, the irreducibly fleshly elements of which we are made. On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, mounted in 2013 at Montclair, featured an incontinent elderly man who emptied his bowels onto the stage frequently and voluminously.
While the first scene of Julius Caesar begins as a pun-filled dialogue on cobbling shoes, it turns more serious with portents of Caesar’s downfall. The actor, with the aid of amplification, thundered the tribune’s grave reply to the cobbler’s raillery, as if the sky were about to open, and indeed the performance began with a reverberating crack. The stentorian tribune’s voice gradually rose to a pitch and fell in concert with the slow gestures of three mute actors nearby, who, like the director of a choir, raised and lowered their arms in unison, an embodied diagram of the brief scene’s dramaturgy. The actor’s breast pocket was labeled, “VSKIJ,” an allusion to the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavkij, the progenitor of what came to be known as method acting.
The second scene wordlessly enacted Caesar’s assassination. An aged man in a red tunic gestured as if speaking, but with only the rumbling of a deep bass on the sound system. The three white tunic-clad younger men came to his side as he faltered. They then posed in a series of tableaux involving an artificial breast, which Caesar placed upon his chest; it was later laid on the floor and kicked aside. The three younger men zippered Caesar inside his red tunic, converting it into a blood-stained shroud.
The third scene was Antony’s famous funeral oration from Act III, Shakespeare’s masterpiece of rhetoric, which Castellucci lightly edited. His old Antony wore two sashes, one white, one red, over his hunched and deeply scarred, bare torso. Antony is pure but has offered his hand to the bloody assassins. Castellucci’s Antony, Dalmazio Masini, had his vocal cords surgically removed for medical reasons. Castellucci taped his body mike on the outside of his throat; the language was turned into a muffled, indistinguishable stream.
The scene started with the three younger men dropping clear plastic sheeting from the balcony. Antony took up one of these plastic sheets to represent Caesar’s mantle, his visual aid as he descended from the pulpit into the crowd to describe how each of the conspirators stabbed Caesar, pointing at the holes where their blades entered.
The ending was purely visual and mechanical: no actors whatsoever. There was an armature holding nine light bulbs, each outfitted with a rotor below the bulb. In sequence, the rotors twirled up to crush the bulb and extinguish the lights. This presumably represented, in wordless, abbreviated form, the multiple deaths in the battle and suicide scenes of Acts IV and V. Some speculate that Shakespeare did not write these later parts of Julius Caesar, as they are inferior to the splendid beginning. Here Castellucci’s condensation is especially admirable.
Castellucci has presented this performance in various iterations since 1997. Why here? Why now? A great deal of American history occurred at this site, including the oath of office of George Washington as the first president and the first meetings of Congress under both the Articles of Confederacy in the 1780s and the U.S. Constitution in the 1790s. (The historic building was demolished and replaced with the current structure in the 1840s.)
To perform his Caesar here implicates this history and ties it to the political ambiguity of the play. Did self-interested conspirators unjustly murder Caesar? Or did Brutus and his league extinguish a nascent tyrant? As thuggish presidential candidate Trump incites his followers to political violence and praises dictators Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Benito Mussolini, and Kim Jong-Un, Castellucci’s Caesar does well to remind us of the threat of tyranny.