Hierarchical Relationships Where Men Dominate Women are Portrayed in Two Local Historical Productions

Julius Caesar, Tour 2012

Bjorn DuPaty (Julius Caesar) and Will Sturdivant (Brutus) in the Guthrie Theater/The Acting Company production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

On two local stages hierarchical structures of the men’s subjugation of women are addressed with varying degrees of success. Torch Theater’s intelligent interpretation of Dangerous Liasons by Christopher Hampton, adapted from Pierre Choderlos de Lachos’s epistolary 1782 novel, is a ruthless look at French aristocracy in the late 1700s. Hampton is always worthwhile for his gutsy historical examinations of sexual expression and dysfunction. His drama, Total Eclipse, delves into the homoerotic torment of poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. His drama and screenplay, A Dangerous Method, boldly but complexly reveals psychology titan Carl Jung’s sadistic urges toward his patient, Sabina Spielrein.

In Dangerous Liasons two French aristocrats who are former lovers have become compulsive in how they pit people against each other. They seem to have an insatiable appetite for blackmail. The Marquise de Merteuil (Stacia Rice) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Middleton) have totally erased not just love, but any kind of human emotion, from sexual activity. Such nihilism and supreme cynicism means they feel no conscience as they seduce others simply for the sake of revenge or taking on lovers at whim only to discard them callously.

For the Marquise and Valmont, sex is a psychological bloodsport. Sexual intimacy, like it or not, puts you in touch with the soul of the person or persons its being experienced with. But these two aristocrats see that as something to be not only disrespected but creatively mocked. (For those who argue that one can have multiple consensual partners and not lose your humanity, I would say, there are compelling arguments for that. Indeed, different people have different libidinal energy levels and indeed, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. And we are freer now to examine the nature of monogamy nowadays as Dan Savage so often does in his excellent sex column. But this play is about the opposite of that and like much of Hampton, has lessons for anyone, no matter where their sex drive lies on the continuum. Fear not, it won’t likely turn you into an erotophobe.)

Director Craig Johnson’s actors speak their roles with rich wit and intellect but they don’t bring forth the ferociousness beneath the writing. I found a similar issue last year in with director John Miller-Stephany’s Guthrie staging of God of Carnage. Directors must bear in mind that certain plays can only work when the cast is made to commit to boldly exposing the dark side.

Middleton, a fine actor, unfortunately, had not found the twisted savagery of Valmont, especially in the sex scenes which really should have a sense of being rape scenes, the night I attended. That idea that rape is not about sex but about power might be applied to Valmont. There’s a craven quality that must come across.

Rice fared better and vividly revealed a woman who goes from haughty arrogance to utterly ragged vulnerability – a vulnerability that springs not from humility, but from guilt over the cruelty she has inflicted on others for too long.

Michael Hoover’s set and Rich Hamson’s costumes splendidly capture the era and the style.

At the Guthrie, a contemporary re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar co-produced with The Acting Company, is compelling and tightly acted. The shift from ancient Rome to current day Washington, D.C. can’t help but give it an anti-Republican (as in anti-GOP) feel. The text itself is about Rome’s own Republican movement (not the GOP!) at odds with the reigning paradigm of the divine concept of a Caesar. Resetting it takes away the burden of having your actors have to really examine the paradigms the play itself is actually addressing. Confusion is also created in some of the video projections which refer to Rome, rather than D.C.

William Sturdivant as protagonist Brutus and Zachary Fine as Mark Antony are mighty powerful. Sharp support comes from Sid Solomon as envy-ridden Cassius. But the show really suffers in how Bob Melrose has directed the play’s only two women and who each, separately, have only a single, but crucial scene.

Calpurnia (Kaliswa Brewster) has been overwhelmed with premonitional nightmares about her husband, Julius Ceasar’s (Bjorn DuPaty) impending assassination. She temporarily convinces him to stay home and not go to the Senate as he had planned. But when the assassins appearing as friendly colleagues arrive to escort the unwitting ruler to the Senate chamber, Melrose has Calpurnia show hardly any resistance to her husband changing his mind and thence going on to his death. This after she has been consumed with nightmares! It reinforces the play’s most cryptic line spoken earlier by a soothsayer: “Beware the Ides of March.” Moreover, it all seems to be passed off as if Caesar simply wanted to stay home and have sex with his beautiful wife. Trivialization indeed.

Another misapplied sexualizing occurs with Portia (Kathleen Wise) who is played as a gorgeous ubermodel type as the wife of Brutus. In resetting the play contemporarily you lose the idea that wives to ‘great men’ in ancient politics, had to be very much on guard, very nuanced, and very intelligent. A man in a position like either Brutus or Caesar would have been wise to hold those as supreme qualities in a woman. Of course, not all men did and not all women embodied those. But the bard has clearly written these women as advanced in their consciousness – figures of great inner strength, loyalty, and abiding love. They are partners with their husbands -as much as a woman can be in such a gender-stratified society as ancient Rome was.

Unfortunately, Wise has made Portia into a neurotic with narcissistic edges. She doesn’t really seem to love her husband. Though the scene where she cuts her thigh can’t help but stunning us, it comes off, not as a woman symbolizing to her husband her loyalty to him, but as a woman who cuts herself out of self-loathing. And that’s not how Portia is written.

Shakespeare intends that the audience struggles with whether they should route for Ceasar or for Brutus. That means the audience needs to have as deep a feeling for each man as possible. And since to be loved one must be lovable, it is important that both wife characters clearly love their husbands beyond the realm of sex and self-absorption. This seems to me to be neglected by the director, not a problem with Wise and Brewster.

Dangerous Liasons
Through Feb. 4
Mpls Theater Garage, 711 W. Franklin Av., Mpls.
(952) 929-9097

Julius Caesar
Through Feb. 5
Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, 818 So. 2nd St., Mpls.
(612) 377-2224

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