The groundling benches are back, the balcony has been erected, and the wooden stage of the Globe fills the Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater once again. The second installment of the Drama Division’s annual Shakespeare repertory season is underway, as Group 38 (the current third-year class) prepares to take the stage with productions of Julius Caesar and As You Like It.
Helming the productions are, respectively, directors Susan Fenichell and Mary Lou Rosato. Fenichell has directed at Juilliard twice before: productions of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and a conflation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts I and II. Rosato has never directed for the School before, but has a very special relationship to the Drama Division as an alumna in Group 1, the first graduating class of actors. Both bring great amounts of experience, insight, and excitement to the rehearsal room.
Julius Caesar is, as the title reflects, about the events surrounding the assassination of the Roman leader Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. The play begins with the return of Caesar (who has been declared Rome’s “dictator for life,” but most emphatically not its king) after a victory over the son of his late rival, Pompey. As Caesar continues to amass power, there is fear among some that he may be crowned as a king by the senate, thereby setting down a line of succession, and destroying the vestiges of democracy left in the republic. A group of men lead by Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius make a plan to keep Rome “free” (but also increase their own power), and on the Ides of March, they assassinate Julius Caesar on the senate floor, thereby setting off a course of events that include war, destruction, and bloodshed, as Brutus and Cassius battle Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew, Octavius Caesar, for the minds and hearts of the Roman people, as well as for control of the growing empire.
“The thing about Julius Caesar that I love,” says Fenichell, “is that it has this really strong political element, a strong sense of a world being turned upside down, and yet you watch what is happening in the world through the prism of friendships and betrayal and very personal, intimate issues.” As a result, Julius Caesar is able to function on more than one level and defy categorization. “I don’t think it is just a big, sprawling political thriller, and I don’t think it is just a psychological drama,” continues Fenichell. “It somehow manages to be both.” In order to further the view of the play’s universality, Fenichell has set her Rome in what she calls “any time/no time.” What this means is that, rather than “setting the production either in ancient Rome or in a specific contemporary time, the events unfold in a time and place that would be recognizable to any generation.” Thus, this one production can, in its wide-ranging scope, evoke images of modern-day politicians and the children of The Lord of the Flies, as well as the real Romans who inspired this play.
While Julius Caesar is a classic Shakespearean tragedy, As You Like It is viewed as one of Shakespeare’s comedies. However, that categorization is a tricky one, according to Rosato, who says, “Shakespeare tackled all life when he wrote a play. He took on all emotions. That’s the reason the classification of his plays is difficult. Comedy? He has a strange way of shaping his comedies; the tragedy still cuts through.” Indeed—for this play is filled with melancholic themes (influenced by another play he wrote the same year, Hamlet) along with bawdy and witty humor, and a heavy dose of romance. However hard to classify, though, Rosato says that “Shakespeare wanted this play to be a comedy. And so it is. Love is a painful comedy.”
The world of As You Like It begins to unfold in a dukedom where the rightful duke (Duke Senior) has recently been usurped by his brother (Duke Fredrick). Duke Senior escapes to the Forest of Arden, as do many lords and citizens loyal to him. Left behind are his daughter, Rosalind, and her cousin, Celia (the daughter of Duke Fredrick). After the young girls meet an enchanting young man named Orlando at a wrestling competition, Duke Fredrick banishes Rosalind—who escapes along with Celia to the Forest of Arden, where Orlando is soon forced to follow as well. Once they enter the somewhat enchanted forest—a world of romance, foolery, and cross-dressing—and as the play evolves, one discovers that it is, according to Rosato, “an adventure/love story where everyone is forced onto a voyage of discovery, where they explore, or hunt, their dear—that is, their love, themselves, and the nature of existence.”
Under Rosato’s vision, the duke’s court is set in modern-day France, but once the travelers set foot in the mystical Forest of Arden, they are transported back to the French period known as La Belle Époque, where Impressionism was a major influence. Arden is indeed a magical world, and it induces a state of wonder not just in children but in everyone. Indeed, Rosato often says (referencing W.H. Auden) that As You Like It is “a fairy tale for adults.”
Performing on Juilliard’s beautiful Globe stage (modeled after the theater that Shakespeare owned in part, and for which he wrote many of his plays) presents challenges for both the directors and the actors. It also “drives a kind of aesthetic tone for both pieces,” says Fenichell, “and I think the purpose of that is to make sure it’s the words that are heard, first and foremost.” The stage encourages an intimacy with the audience and rules out the use of large sets, thereby forcing all involved to focus on the challenge really at hand. “Clearly, with Shakespeare,” Fenichell says, “the primary thing should be the words; you should be able to do it on a bare stage.”
As You Like It will also be performed for middle-school children brought in by bus from all over New York City, as a part of Lincoln Center Theater’s Open Stages program. Preceding the performance, middle schoolers from several boroughs will have been taught about the play and about Shakespeare in April by Lincoln Center Theater’s teaching artists. Each student will receive a copy of the play, and will be able to talk with the actors after the production. For the Juilliard actors, it’s a chance to share their love of the Bard and the theater, and to inspire the next generation to appreciate them as much as they do.