Bring Me the Head of David McCallum New Yorkers, normally a rather blase lot, were recently surprised to see a flatbed truck heading uptown, bearing a 350lb papier-mache head bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actor David McCallum. It was no mass hallucination; instead, it was a key part of the scenic design of Julius Caesar, as staged by New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
Julius Caesar, with its plot full of assassinations, speeches, and political maneuvering culminating in open warfare, is always a favorite during an election year, but Barry Edelstein's notably swift and surehanded production could not have been further from the staged banalities of the Republican and Democratic convention broadcasts. Edelstein set the action in a Rome teetering on the edge of chaos and mob rule, ruled by an aging, intemperate Caesar (McCallum) who is subject to epileptic seizures. All the characters - good, bad, and ambiguous - seem unable to prevent the empire from sliding into bloodshed. Edelstein stressed the element of predestination in the play by having the Soothsayer (who warns Caesar about the Ides of March) a nearly constant onstage presence, presiding impassively over scene after scene of death and destruction.
Fittingly, scenic designer Narelle Sissons says she envisioned Rome as "a decaying city" with a timeless, postmodern quality. The aforementioned head resided at stage right, where it was hung from a 30'-tall crane. At stage left was placed a giant papier-mache hand and forearm. Between these elements were two stone walls, into which had been carved Roman numerals. The overall look was distressed: The action began with an actor painting Caesar's name on a wall in blood-red paint, but there were bloodstains on the walls as well. Certain fingers on the papier-mache hand had been broken and reset. There were burn marks and stains everywhere.
This approach served a dual purpose. First, it helped establish the play's initial situation. "Caesar's been away from Rome, winning the war against Pompey," Sissons says. "Rome is in need of reconstruction." Also, the urban decay, the graffiti, and the onstage crane all help link Shakespeare's Rome with modern-day New York - a place where violence and political chicanery are not entirely unknown.
Furthermore, the scenic design played a part in many key dramatic moments. Caesar's head was prominently displayed, hanging from the crane in the opening scenes, then was transferred to a more extreme stage-right position; after his murder, it was doused with blood. A square-shaped piece of the stage deck rose in the air, thanks to a scissors lift, to provide a lofty spot for Brutus' and Marc Antony's funeral orations. A catwalk on the top of the walls provided an effective spot for several scenes, including a fateful appearance by Brutus' wife Portia. During the intermission, the walls were stripped away, leaving bare scaffolding for the battle scenes of Act II. This strategy also opened up the playing space enormously and gave lighting designer Donald Holder a battery of new positions, which he seized to create stunningly effective backlight for the approach of clashing armies.
The head and hand pieces were built on the stage of the Newman Theatre, at New York Shakespeare Festival's downtown venue, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. Dan Dalrymple, a member of the theatre's technical staff, has experience in fabricating floats for the annual Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, and the Julius Caesar pieces were built in much the same way. "Each piece took about two and a half weeks," he says, adding that two to three people worked on each. To create the head, he and his team worked from photos of David McCallum; the actor also had a bust of himself, from another project, which came in handy here, as a visual inspiration. The hand was based on Dalrymple's own hand. Both pieces were weatherproofed using an elastomeric roof coating.
Another key effect involved 8'-tall shots of flame that issued from the stage deck at certain dramatic moments, a magical touch that reflects Sissons' belief that Julius Caesar, with its soothsayer, prophecies, and oracular dreams, is at least as much about spirituality as politics. The fire effect was created by Ian O'Connor, a Los Angeles-based specialist who has worked before at New York Shakespeare Festival.
Aside from the head and arm pieces, the rest of the scenery, most notably the crane, was fabricated by Entolo, the scenic division of Production Resource Group. Entolo also supplied the Stage Command System, which allowed the crane to move. Other scenic personnel included assistant designer Troy Hourie; scenic artists Justin Morgan Field, Bethany Ann McDonald, Anne McKilligan, Keaton Morris-Stan, and Reeves Morris-Stan. The theatre's carpentry crew is headed by Thomas Keating and Luis Torres. The rest of the creative team included costume designer Angela Wendt and sound designer Ken Travis.
When asked about the future of the papier-mache pieces after the production's limited run, Dalrymple jokes, "They're for sale." So if anyone out there knows a really, really big David McCallum fan, the perfect Christmas present is now available. Julius Caesar ran at the Delacorte Theatre through Labor Day.