WSC Avant Bard is living up to its name with its strong and ambitious summer offering crossing Shakespeare with the avant garde, Caesar & Dada.
In a season when the carefree and slight entertainments fill many theatrical bills, the world premiere from Allyson Currin presents big ideas of art, life, death and theater through an ingenious setting: A bold theater company in post World War I Europe, letting the notions of the insurrectionist art movement of dada into its production of Shakespeare and upending the natural realism emerging in the early 20th Century to be influenced by symbolists and art.
…a play that benefits not just from the accomplishment of the actors but in all who collaborated.
It’s not quite as academic as it sounds, though. In the production at Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre that runs through this weekend, it’s buoyed by a top notch ensemble cast and vivid staging by director Lee Mikeska gardner.
As it begins we see the closing minutes of a production of Othello by the leading artistic group in Zurich — the Theater for Truth! — and the exuberance that comes from putting on a great performance. Making art and approaching truth at a time the world seems falling apart may seem folly to some but to those involved it is the only way to rise above the despair and death and make sense of it and find a way out.
Sun King Davis plays the artistic director as tyrannical theatrical overlord, bullying the actors and praising them into fine work. His is an Germanic Swiss accent and the rest of the actors each have an accent from other parts of Europe: Andrew Ferlo has a touch of Irish as he plays a lead actor charged with dreams; Joe Feldman is an Italian romantic excitable about new movements of thought, who quickly drops symbolism for dada. Megan Dominy is a Russian actress with all the history of that country’s emerging theater; Mario Baldessari is her English husband, who is content to design sets of his own liking and not rock the boat.
Into this tight group of artistic self-satisfaction comes an American who wants to be a part of it, played by Mundy Spears. She’s a captivating presence from the start and she casts a spell on the rest of the players as well. And though her casting idea seems at first audacious — she’d like to play Brutus in their “Julius Ceasar” as a woman — the artistic director decides audacious is just what he likes.
Cesar & Dada is a play that benefits not just from the accomplishment of the actors but in all who collaborated. The innovative set of Steven T. Royal Jr., who also co-directed, never fails to be arresting, even as it changes through the show.
The collection of accents from vocal coach Melissa Flaim’s work is apparent and the effectiveness of fight choreographer Robb Hunter is clear in the sharply drawn sword fight that occurs.
There’s even a couple of amusing projections from Tewodros Melchishua that uses humor to explain the various artistic approaches.
That being said, Cesar & Dada is not exactly an example of dadaism — had it been, whole scenes might have been reduced to repeating syllables to illustrate global absurdity. Rather, it’s an artistic notion that’s brought up just as symbolism is, though the latter ends up getting more time.
The award-winning playwright Currin admits that the play has gone through a dozen versions and the second act suggests it may need yet another. To have a play of such strong ideas and ambitions turn into another saga about a romantic triangle with of a “Smash” secondary plot seems a waste and the abrupt climax, just wrong. In that, it flies in the face of what else has been going on, a deeply thoughtful, mostly deliberate creation that gladly supplies substance at a time when it is not always easy to find on the stage.
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.
Advisory: Some adult language is sprinkled in a text that is never dependent on it.
Cesar & Dada runs through June 14 at the Catholic University of America Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington D.C. Tickets are available from 703-418-4808 or here.