Making Shakespeare relevant
By KAREN SHADE, 01/27/2009
Director pares illusions from 'Julius Caesar'
Dallas-based theater artist Bill Fountain asked himself a question before deciding to hit the road with "Julius Caesar."
"If you went out right now, plucked 10 people off the street, took them into a room and downloaded 'Caesar' into their brains, what would happen?" he proposed in a recent phone interview.
In rehearsal, it looks like this: 10 actors, largely from the Dallas/Fort Worth community theater scene, holding up lights and sheets, batting sticks together and staying within constant view of the audience. They switch in and out of the more than three dozen roles comprising the character list of Shakespeare's historical drama. Women also play men's roles.
It's a production that goes to the basics of theater to render a portrait of humans, which Fountain said often goes hidden beneath laurels and togas. It's a staging that's also been a long time coming for the director and playwright.
"I've been reading the play since I was about 8," he said. "Every time I read it, I find something new to appreciate in it. It's one of those works that it kind of haunts you."
Wherever it goes, "Julius Caesar" has relevance for today's world in at least one respect, Fountain said. Caesar's Rome was a dangerous place to be, with a single thread holding that world from dissipating into chaos.
Some 2,000 years later, the times haven't changed much, he added. By breaking down theatrical illusions further — say the representational sets, flowing costumes and the line between center stage and backstage — the relevance, he hopes, becomes more apparent.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to the words and allowing the actors space to bring out characteristics and traits that make Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony look more human and less like statuary. Fountain said most productions of "Julius Caesar" that he has seen rarely get to the core of what makes the drama most compelling.
"It's a play that has always bothered me. And by 'bothered' what I mean is it's a play that I feel like every single time I've seen it performed, with very few exceptions, I really felt like we weren't getting it."
He said he's also bothered by gimmicks such as rewording the play into more contemporary English.
"There seems to be a tendency in recent times to try and make Shakespeare accessible," he said, "for lack of a better word, by either dumbing it down or saying, 'We're going to put Shakespeare on the moon.' "
Fountain would never be the one to say his vision of "Julius Caesar" is the only way to look at the play.
"My hope is that we'll offer a 'Caesar' that would be engaging to an audience, that would open up a dialogue with the audience — that the audience is going to go away from it and say, 'Let's go somewhere and talk about that,' instead of a clap and it ends and they forget it."