Show adds noir style to classic play

Trading senators in togas for detectives in trenchcoats, Merely Players’ production of “Caesar Noir” adapts Shakesepeare’s tragedy into a noir world. / Courtesy of Merely Players via Facebook

Over the summer, The Public Theater staged a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Central Park for their Shakespeare in the Park program. Morphing the character of Julius Caesar into Donald Trump proved divisive, causing several conservative protesters to disrupt performances.

Regardless of the production’s controversy, the play’s themes of power and corruption, good and evil, and duty and morality still remain iconic, reminding the world why Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be called universal. While not a fully contemporary adaptation, Merely Players’ upcoming production of “Caesar Noir” transports the play into the world of film noir, illuminating themes that the Public’s production addressed but in a world teeming with ominous silence and ambiguous morality.

The lights go dim, and the Venetian blinds go up in the Aula this Thursday, Friday and Saturday night as Merely Players presents “Caesar Noir.” Directed by Leon Wang ’19 and stage managed by Annie Hu ’21, this film noir adaptation transforms William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Julius Caesar” into the seedy underbelly of crime world. In this setting, modeled after 1940s Chicago, the characters are no longer Roman senators but detectives, with Julius Caesar as a corrupt police officer.

After studying over the summer in Rome in a Latin-immersive program, Wang revisited Shakespeare’s play and thought about adapting it for student theater. Wang wondered, “What if we had a show about Julius Caesar, but we focused on the characters’ individual feelings? What would Brutus be feeling while he’s killing Caesar, and what would Antony feel after he turns up? That’s the idea where the noir element came to me because noir is a very interesting genre. Usually the protagonists in the film do not talk a lot or really share their emotions, but sometimes it’s the silence and other elements that make us human.”

One of the specific films to inspire Wang’s direction was the 2002 Chinese neo-noir “Infernal Affairs,” which was adapted in 2006 into Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” As Wang explained, “What inspired me is the feeling that both the protagonists’ greatest struggle is not being understood by anybody else—that is what I envisioned to be the tragic theme on Brutus.”

Wang previously directed Philaletheis’ production “Time Long Past” in the spring. He translated the original Chinese script into English for the production. Bringing the same auteurist flair to his current production, Wang incorporated additional dialogue into Shakespeare’s play to make it fit the setting and style to become “Caesar Noir”.

Portraying Titinius and several other characters, Jesse Horowitz ’19 is not new to Shakespeare, having appeared in Merely Players’ Fall 2016 production of Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” [Full Disclosure:: Horowitz is an Opinions columnist for The Miscellany News]. In discussing the modern incorporation of Wang’s new material, Horowitz said, “I think [the production’s script is] good at blending that with new material that helps it fit into the world we’re putting it in. It’s still ‘Julius Caesar.’ It’s still the show that Shakespeare wrote, but I feel we’re doing something very new with it is as well.”

Production manager and costume designer Laura Yang ’21 spoke about how the Wang-Shakespeare hybrid script impacted the production: “It is quite different from working with a finished classical script, where you have a lot of precedent productions and resources that you can reference to. It is also not like producing an original production, where there will be a lot of space and flexibility for us to adjust the settings and everything. But for our show, we need to be innovative in a lot of ways, which is a lot of fun but also hard work because the script is not completely the original piece; at the same time, we still need to consider how we can, through a modern setting, also preserve the canons in Shakespeare’s work.”

Besides the unique design aspects, there are eight other students involved in their first production on campus. Yang described what she has enjoyed about being a first-time production manager and costume designer: “The experience in the production team of ‘Caesar Noir’ is quite novel for me. I am lucky that as production manager and costume designer I’m able to get in touch with both the production team and the cast, which give me a more complete picture of what would the play be like.”

For Joe Diez ’21, this will be his first production at Vassar. Despite having a notable amount of experience with Shakespeare before coming to Vassar, student theater at Vassar has been a whole new experience: “The acting company I worked with throughout high school was a very close-knit group of friends. So having to put myself out there, introduce myself to these new people, it’s daunting, but ultimately it pays off because you get this really powerful experience out of it.”

After revisiting the play following a summer program in Rome, director Leon Wang ’19 wanted to stage Shakespeare’s tragedy in a noir setting to explore the characters’ integrity. / Courtesy of Leon Wang

Merely Players aims to be a teaching organization to provide students with the ability to learn about theater through different viewpoints. Diez expanded on the benefit of that element in the rehearsal schedule: “This is my first production at Vassar, and I’ve been able to learn about that process. It’s hectic, it’s fascinating and at the end of the day, it’s exciting.”

One of Wang’s focuses in rehearsals has been to have the actors explore the inner motivations and blurred lines of their composure. Except for those playing Antony, Brutus and Cassius, all of the other actors portray multiple characters.

Explaining the challenge and artistic opportunity this task provides, Horowitz said, “It’s interesting because I have to think about a variety of people and what they’re thinking about, rather than committing myself to just one person. This is sort of new for me. Usually when that’s the case, it’s one line at a time. But the characters that I’m playing are not necessarily minor roles in the scene or the background…And so I had to think a lot about these characters, their motivations, what they’re thinking about and what they are.”

Shakespeare’s plays continue to be a mainstay of the theater world at Vassar. Later this semester, Merely Players will be co-producing a production of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of the Greek myth of Eurydice with Unbound.

Acknowledging the universal presence of Shakespeare’s plays, Wang spoke about the realizations in encountering and working with such a rich and multilayered text: “You know the glam- our of Shakespeare because it has been performed over and over again. When you watch it, or direct it or try to put it on, you discover new feelings about it. Also, since the actors on my team are really experienced and all love Shakespeare very much, it’s been a really enjoyable process working with them this time.”

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