Federal Hall is a national memorial as the “Birthplace of American Government,” and on a recent Saturday there were lines snaking down its steps to get inside. The crowds hadn’t come to 26 Wall Street for its historical significance, as the site of the first US capitol, the first Supreme Court and where George Washington took the first presidential oath. Instead, they were queuing to see Romeo Castellucci’s Julius Caesar. Spared Parts, a site-specific “dramatic intervention” on Shakespeare and Roman history, which FIAF’s Crossing the Line has judiciously – or daringly – programmed in this election year. By curtain time, the tourists who had been taking selfies in front of the building’s neoclassical columns had probably moved on to the New York Stock Exchange, Trinity Church, or the 9/11 Memorial. All of these sites shed significance on the location where we were gathered, but in October 2016, none more so than Federal Hall’s closest neighbor at #40: The Trump Building. And for all those reasons, Castellucci had come to Federal Hall.
Castellucci is a co-founder of the Italian experimental company Societas Raffaello Sanzio and one of the most challenging theater directors in the world today. SRS creates aural and visual dreamscapes in the more nightmarish genre, that pulse with subterranean rivers or spin with the terrible force of industrial machines. Spared Parts presents a few “parts” only of the Julius Caesar the company created in 1997, but concentrates these key scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy into a lacerating 45-minute study of the power of speech and rhetoric in government.
What more apropos subject for a New York audience today, seated in the very spot where the founding fathers first denounced taxation without representation, which is also a stone’s throw from a checkered Trump property and a short train ride to Hilary Clinton’s campaign HQ in Brooklyn. Castellucci’s interpretation could hardly fall on more acutely tuned eyes and ears, and in three brief vignettes, Spared Parts distills into our sensory organs a disturbing, mesmerizing and menacing treatise of its own.
In it, Castellucci rips the heart from Shakespeare’s play and displays it for us (much as a ghostly Caesar does with his own heart in Spared Parts), by going straight to the vocal organs that make speech possible. Of the five actors on stage, two, Dalmazio Masini as Mark Antony and Sergio Scarlatella, as a symbolic representation of Constantin Stanislavski (named “…vskji”), embody opposite poles of speech production. Masini, who has had a tracheostomy, delivers Antony’s famous funeral oration in a guttural whisper through the incision in his throat. Scarlatella winds an endoscopic camera into his larynx so we can watch his vocal folds opening and closing as he delivers Marullus’ harangue to the citizens of Rome. If we take speech for granted, we’re quickly reminded that producing language is a physical act and a difficult one at that. In both the damaged and the living tissue of the actors’ throats, we can also see that the words that are produced do not disappear “into thin air” to be erased, dismissed or misremembered later. Rather, they mark and define the body that creates them .
That’s the first point of Castellucci’s argument in Spared Parts. The second comes in the silent tableaux which also structure the show. In contrast to the voices of Antony and the Romans, Caesar never lets fall a word here, at least not one that creates a sound wave. Instead, Gianni Plazzi’s red-cloaked leader speaks to us only in the gestural language of orators – so understandable to anyone who has been following the campaign trail. His murderers also strike staged poses evoking Vincenzo Camuccini’s The Death of Caesar. Yet the consequences of their actions also have a physical presence, in Caesar’s wounds: a lesson from Shakespeare through the voice of Mark Antony, that these “poor dumb mouths” reveal the motives of those who made them. Similarly, Castellucci chooses to bypass language and show us how actions are also voluble symbols of the intentions of those who perform or commit them.
Antony’s masterpiece of oratorial skill is the kind of political discourse that can and should earn attention and even respect. Drawing from Shakespeare but also the current election climate, Castellucci proves equally adept at the art of the rhetorical flourish. He also has a deep sense of timing and symbolism whose layers of meaning make his argument something more than mere words. Caesar’s mantle is a cheap plastic drop cloth for painting. Antony delivers his speech from a podium labelled ARS. “…vskji” is an allusion to the father of method acting (and, for a fleeting moment, one of its greatest practitioners, Marlon Brando, can be heard delivering Antony’s speech in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 film). A bust of Caesar lies toppled on the floor throughout the performance. And as Masini’s Antony susurrates the crowd to mutiny, nine naked lightbulbs are lit one by one behind him; after he exits, each is abruptly smashed by a whirring blade. Sometimes in a Societas Raffaello Sanzio production, it’s hard to keep watching. Often, it’s even more difficult to look away. In Spared Parts, this accessible visual language is adapted to its purpose, just as Antony’s speech was, to underscore the obvious and ask us to consider it differently.
Though the comparison isn’t obvious, Castellucci’s Julius Caesar. Spared Parts put me in mind of another show in New York currently: Peter Brook’s Battlefield. Both of these visionary directors have chosen to return to their full-scale interpretations of literary masterpieces about conflict and governance, to distill them to their essence. It may be that, in the Twitter age and given the urgency of both of these politically charged shows, they recognize that their message will reach its audience more effectively if it is expressed in the fewest possible characters. But Castellucci and Brook also share a mastery of their texts, contexts and visual languages so that form becomes content and not merely its vehicle.
The New York premiere of Castellucci’s Julius Caesar. Spared Parts fires a warning shot at our political class and those who aspire to it, so skilled they are now in saying and doing anything that suits them, then spinning a different “message” just as quickly when the mood changes. Is there a limit? Caesar crossed the Rubicon to start the civil war with Pompey. The same river flows through Cesena, Italy, where Societas Raffaello Sanzio is based. Julius Caesar. Spared Parts, as performed at Federal Hall, is a stark reminder that we are in danger of crossing the rubicon of what is acceptable in the discourse of our political leaders and the language of our nation.