Tag Archives: #12Readings

Playing Politics: Director Jason D. Rennie Discusses “Julius Caesar”

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

Jason D. Rennie to direct Monday’s staged reading of
Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar utters this famous line in Act One of Shakespeare’s tragedy, blissfully unaware that fault and fate would soon play large parts in his own destiny. In this Monday’s staged reading of Julius Caesar, fault and fate are two questions Director Jason Rennie knows better than to tackle directly.

“I have always been very intrigued by the play and it took a while to figure out why I was drawn to it,” says Jason. “I think it’s mostly because the ambiguity is so appealing to me.”

That ambiguity is what has made this particular tragedy so memorable for audiences, and at the same time so challenging for actors and directors. Even though acts of savagery abound, the clarity of right and wrong in this political arena is not so absolute. Sympathy, surprisingly, falls on the backs of unexpected characters. The lines in the sand are blurry.

While this is Jason’s first foray into directing Julius Caesar, he has been through this story as an actor more than once.

Julius Caesar
by Nicolas Coustou.

“My drive to want to do this play stems from the frustration I’ve had as an actor,” he explains, citing the questions the story raises about politics, patriotism, and power. “The play itself doesn’t take one side or the other as far as the central conflict is concerned. All these characters, even the antagonists or the minor functionaries, are all drawn with ambiguity. It’s plausible to see them on one side or the other of that conflict, and you can easily sympathize one way or the other.”

In fact, he states, a more accurate title would probably be The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, the character on whom most of the moral ambiguity falls during the course of the story.

“Brutus feels patriotic and wants to combat tyranny,” explains Jason, “but at the same time he’s thinking of committing murder. Can you ever truly justify and sanctify murder? I think none of those questions are actually answered within the play.”

Shakespeare plays his political cards close to the vest on this one, which makes sense, given that the play is perceived as a veiled critique of the Elizabethan monarchy. The fascination with Rome in the late 1500s provided an apt backdrop to the perceived overreaching power of Queen Elizabeth’s self-proclaimed deific reign.

Elizabeth I
Artist Unknown

“Elizabeth was starting to equate herself with that divinity and an immortal type of ruler, which was extremely hubristic,” says Jason. “It was a very hot political issue at the time.”

For us in modern times, the play still carries a critique – not of monarchy, necessarily, but of patriotism and the lengths to which it will be cited as justification for untoward acts.

“What is the motive when you invoke patriotism?” Jason asks. “Is it to justify an act that you personally don’t feel you can stand behind without it?  And who’s to judge?”

Indeed, many of these questions have arisen within our current political climate, not just domestically, but globally. While Shakespeare writes sympathetic characters on both sides of the issue in Julius Caesar, the dialogue is the same as the one we are currently having around the world.

“A lot of the political issues that have been front page issues over the last few years can be boiled down to the same types of things,” says Jason, commenting that Julius Caesar could be performed against a backdrop of the current political landscapes of Egypt or Syria. “It’s a question of who has more power and do they deserve it?”

And with complicated questions come complicated answers. Once power is taken, what is left of the political state? It’s fine to depose a king, says Jason, but what happens afterwards? In this light, he says, Julius Caesar becomes not only a tragedy, but also a cautionary tale.

Hopefully, he and his actors can shed some light on this subject, but Jason is just as wary as Shakespeare was of actually picking sides.

“Shakespeare isn’t condoning or condemning a political assassination in Julius Caesar, but instead asking whether or not it is within the public’s power to make the decision,” clarifies Jason with a statement that, like the nature of both art and politics, perhaps generates more questions than it does answers.

– Tiffany Tang

Julius Caesar, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, November 18. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.

 

Wilde Ideas: A Conversation with Sean Yael-Cox, Tom Hall, and Jim Chovick

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”  – Oscar Wilde

As Sean Yael-Cox, Artistic Director of Intrepid Shakespeare, prepares to direct the company’s upcoming staged reading on Monday evening at the Encinitas Library, one question keeps reverberating in his mind:

“Why isn’t this play performed more often?”

The play in question is Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which will be presented by a stellar cast of San Diego heavies, among them Tom Hall as Oscar Wilde and Jim Chovick as the Marquess of Queensberry.

“It feels incredibly timely and appropriate to look at this play now because it’s about human rights,” says Sean, citing the recent waves of political change with regards to equality. “It’s a strong play to do now.”

Wilde and Douglas, 1893

Kaufman’s play, assembled in a docu-drama style which lifts direct quotations from historical documents, personal letters, and creative work, follows the later years of playwright Oscar Wilde as he undergoes three lawsuits in England – one which he initiates in order to rebuke a slanderous statement made against him by the Marquess of Queensberry, and two others initiated by the government on the charges of “gross indecency” between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the Marquess’ son.

“A lot of people don’t know what happened to Wilde and how it ended for him,” comments Sean. “I think it says something about his writing that he is known for his wit and his charm and not remembered for the trials.”

Charged with the task of portraying Oscar Wilde is Tom Hall, most recently seen in Intrepid’s production of Hamlet as Horatio. Even though Tom describes the role as “very challenging and very daunting,” he is thankful that the authentic words of Wilde are there to provide a foundation for his real life character.

Tom Hall in Hamlet
Photo: Daren Scott

“You get a strong sense of who he was and how he carried himself through his writing,” says Tom. “Wilde wasn’t just a person. He’s a personality.”

Also recreating an historical figure is Jim Chovick, who will be portraying the Marquess as well as two different prosecuting attorneys in the reading.

“The Marquess of Queensbury is the nemesis,” says Jim, also last seen in Intrepid’s Hamlet as the Ghost. “He’s rather rough and strong arms his way through life.”

What lends credibility to these characters is that their conversations are almost entirely created from historical record, and Kaufman manages to investigate the trials with a modern perspective while maintaining the integrity of the people involved.

“It’s like a crash course history lesson, but it’s incredibly theatrical,” says Sean, who will also take a turn on stage during the reading. “It’s almost like doing an Oscar Wilde play because there are so many excerpts from his writing. It’s the beautiful poetry and a ton of humor.”

Sean Yael-Cox and Jim Chovick in Hamlet
Photo: Daren Scott

Sadly, it is the creative writings of Wilde that are also used as evidence against him when he is put on trial for his “illegal” activities with Douglas. Tom notes that because of this, it is not the actual relationship between the men that ends up under the microscope. It is Wilde’s struggle for artistic expression.

“He was really being tried for his subversive views on art, morality, and Victorian society,” says Tom. “Wilde believed in the power of art to transform man. He believed that art could change the world, could bring about peace, and all of these ideas that were revolutionary for his time.”

Jim agrees. “The playwright knew what he was doing,” he says. “Wilde isn’t defending his actions, he’s saying I’m an artist and art rises above these petty little rules.”

1895 newspaper
(c) The British Library Board

This “rule” that Wilde was ultimately found guilty of was “gross indecency” between males, and while the term was never clearly defined by Parliament, it was used to criminalize homosexuality in Victorian England. It was not repealed until 1967.

The somewhat didactic nature of this play should not be intimidating, however. Anyone familiar with Kaufman’s The Laramie Project will understand his unique ability to take facts and weave them into a compelling narrative.

“The best kind of play is one that will move you emotionally and educate you,” says Jim. “Anything that is well-written will resonate. It’s human nature.”

Rounding out the cast of historical figures is Brian Rickel, Danny Campbell (most recently seen as Polonius in Hamlet), as well as John Tessmer, Ben Cole, and Edred Utomi who are all currently acting in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the musical, which closes on Intrepid’s mainstage on Sunday.

– Tiffany Tang

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, August 19. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.