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Roman Tragedies

Ivo van Hove's technologically advanced staging of three Shakespeare plays is the ultimate fix for news junkies, social media addicts, and theater lovers.

Janni Goslinga and Gijs Scholten van Aschat in Roman Tragedies.
© 2012 Richard Termine
News junkies, social media addicts, and Shakespeare lovers can now score their ultimate fix: Ivo van Hove's epic Roman Tragedies at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House through Sunday, November 18.

This six-hour work imagines the Bard's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra as late-breaking headlines, replete with an LED ticker. Plus, during the course of this electrifying and heady production, you can tweet and snap pics and send them to your friends from the stage, where scenic designer Jan Versweyveld has created an environment that is a cross between a newsroom studio and airport lounge.

Van Hove wastes no time in plunging you into the action, even though for the first 20 minutes, you're sitting facing the stage as you would normally. The show literally thunders to a start with the first of Eric Sleichim's gut-shaking compositions for percussion (performed by two musicians at either side of the stage) as Versweyveld's lighting design goes haywire and the LED ticker runs amok providing the context for Coriolanus, which centers on the Roman general who is first hailed as a savior of the state and later reviled by his countrymen.

After 20 minutes or so, the production hits its first scene change. At this point, you can opt to stay in your seat or you can join in the action on stage. There, you can lounge on couches that put you literally within inches of the performers or you can watch the action live on flat-screen televisions that are strategically placed around the space. For anyone who stays in the more traditional theater seating, Tal Yarden's exceptional live video feeds (which can often compact the distance between performers to cunning effect) are seen as a kind of wide-screen movie just above the action.

In addition, while the show is unfolding, you can also drop by the bar/food service that's over on stage left to pick up some sustenance (and should you need a break, there's also the ability to pick up a bite in the theater's café to which the show is streamed live). Or if you're feeling the need to reach out to your followers – and suffering from the nearly impossible to reach 3G service inside the theater – you can sign in to one of the workstations at the internet center to share your thoughts about the events into which you've been swept.

Given the enormity and complexity of the undertaking, the show could easily devolve into a confusing three-ring circus, but van Hove has orchestrated the event with an incredibly sure hand. And although it's nearly impossible to not be distracted every now and then by the movements of other audience members, or even succumb to the temptation to snap a shot or two, the centerpiece of the production is always the indefatigable ensemble's robust interpretations of the Bard's stories and characters.

During the show's first third, it's Gijs Scholten van Aschat's portrayal of Coriolanus that holds your attention. As the character is buffeted by a fickle populace and his manipulative mother, Volumnia (an almost repulsively steely Frieda Pittoors), van Aschat brings a volcanic rage and straightforwardness to his portrayal of the general that borders on the self-destructive. Further, once Coriolanus must confront the fact that he has conspired to cause Rome's downfall, van Aschat modulates his performance with a delicate humanity.

In the show's second section, Roeland Fernhout proves equally compelling as Brutus, one of the chief conspirators against Julius Caesar (Hugo Kooschijn). Visually, Fernhout invokes thoughts of stage and screen star Eric McCormack and real life politico Scott Brown, all the while imbuing the character with an integrity that makes the assessment from Antony (Hans Kesting) about Brutus' nobility seem all-too-credible. Equally fascinating is Marieke Heebrink's edgily wily portrayal of Brutus' co-conspirator Cassius. Further, this bit of gender-blind casting imbues the all-too-familiar play with a heretofore unimagined sexual tension.

Another actress, Karina Smulders, takes on a male character in the third section of the show, turning in an icily manipulative performance as Octavius Caesar as the tragedy of Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) unfurls. It's an intriguing choice that adds a layer of contemporary resonance to this sad tale, placing it not only against a complex political background, but also in a world in which an all-male patriarchy's power is crumbling.

Unfortunately, the immediacy of Roman Tragedies ends just before the doomed lovers – whom Kesting and Nietvelt play with steamy combustibility – meet their tragic ends. It's at this moment that you're asked to leave the stage and return to the theater's "normal" seating. And while tweeting, texting, and photography are still permitted, a sense of resentment over the chasm that opens between action and the audience is nearly impossible to dismiss. And while the shift doesn't diminish the artists' exceptional achievements in this monumental undertaking, it could produce a few angry tweets to #romantragedies.


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