Supplying both a lengthy introduction in the UCLA house program and a little red book of essays, Societas Raffaello Sanzio provided more program notes than spoken text in its solemn, hallucinatory “Julius Caesar” at the Freud Playhouse on Friday.
Never as lucid as the production itself, the pileup of written explanations did prove appropriate, for the Italian company’s 1997 staging (in Italian with English supertitles) focused on the manipulation and misuse of rhetoric.
To serve this theme, directors Chiara Guidi, Claudia Castellucci and Romeo Castellucci pared and pulverized Shakespeare’s play, adding speeches from Cicero and Latin historians.
Very “Fellini Satyricon” in theatrical style, Act 1 focused on the influence of Cassius (Sergio Scarlatella) on Brutus (Silvano Voltolina) and, particularly, on the weight of words leading to assassination. Adding to the weight of those words: casting an immensely overweight actor (Glauco Natali) as the orator Cicero and making mighty Caesar (Maurizio Carra) pitifully feeble and powerless.
Moreover, all the celebrated speechmaking after Caesar’s murder became transformed in this version by using an actor with a laryngectomy (Dalmazio Masini) as Antony and having Brutus inhale helium and thus speak in a comic baby-voice.
Tapes of Marlon Brando’s funeral oration from the 1953 film of “Julius Caesar” added another texture of wordplay.
Very Samuel Beckett in style, Act 2 examined the downfall of Cassius and Brutus, here recast with two dangerously emaciated women: Cristiana Bertini and Valentina Picello. Like the Brando tape, the presence of the Act 1 Cassius and Brutus in secondary roles (Cassius 1 assisting Cassius 2, etc.) helped undermine any conventional suspension of disbelief and keep the ruinous miscommunications in these scenes in high relief.
At the end, Cassius beckoned to Brutus from beyond the grave (“It’s beautiful here”), and a character identified as ...vskij (Fabio Sajiz) urged her to take “the line of action.” But she remained paralyzed, unable to either die or go on living in the war-ravaged world created by her own words.
Superimposed on this action plan or agenda: contrasts between destructive, word-driven human society and the instinctual animal kingdom -- a realm represented by a live horse (and later a skeletal life-size horse puppet), a flying seahorse, a stuffed fox and a mechanical cat.
In Shakespeare, Antony exclaims “O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts / And men have lost their reason.” Here, however, we saw the exact opposite: The cat’s head spinning dizzily at verbal overkill and even a chair walking away from Cicero’s oration.
Brutish beasts and the material world thus rebelled at what passed for human judgment or reason. And if each act began with the sight of a battering ram, it was words that battered at life in this “Julius Caesar” and left only a bombed-out wasteland as their monument.
Staged with a ravishing sense of design -- from the gauzy, impressionistic shadow land of Act 1 to the shattered metallic facade of Act 2 -- the production recognized that stagecraft itself is a form of rhetoric and continually used the devices of theater to trump theatrical illusion.
But engraving “This is not an actor” (in French) on a tombstone that descended on the dead Cassius couldn’t nullify Bertini’s performance any more than Guidi and the Castelluccis could nullify their own superb theatricality by voicing suspicions about theater in their little red book. Quite apart from its thematic preoccupations, their “Julius Caesar” made a startling impact from its images, sounds and unforgettable cast, while all the convoluted program notes ultimately added up to nothing more than one more example of empty rhetoric.