Rome Wasn’t Lit in a Day

Posted by on August 21, 2013

What the lights are supposed to look like in the Elm Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar, continuing through September 1 in New Haven’s Edgerton Park. Photo by Mike Franzman. 


When it is lighted, come and call me here.

—Brutus, in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Act II Scene 1

Edgerton Park was dark on Wednesday night. It wasn’t meant to be. The actors of the Elm Shakespeare Company were in their places backstage to perform the tragedy Julius Caesar. ESC marketing manager Barbara Schaffer had done the opening speech thanking all the sponsors, basking in a soothing blue onstage light.

Then, just as we were all set to beware the Ides of March, another Shakespeare conceit took precedence: Out, out, brief candle. No lights. Not a flicker. No sound. No performers.

Within moments, ElmShakes founder James Andreassi had come out to soothe the crowd, who were literally in the dark about what had just happened.

Andreassi explained that, apparently, “the power in the whole park has gone out.” He joked, encouraging the crowd to sing while they waited. He cajoled: “If you brought your car into the park, please direct your lights towards the stage.” It didn’t appear to be a serious offer, though there is a precedent in Connecticut summer theater. I quote from the book Broadway in a Barn by Charlotte Harmon and Rosemary Taylor, which chronicles the authors’ adventures running the Chapel Playhouse in Guilford and the Clinton Playhouse in Clinton:

I remember one night when the lights went out along with a big crack of thunder in the middle of the first act of Life With Father.

After about twenty minutes of darkness we phoned the power company. They didn’t know when the power would be restored, maybe not for a couple of hours. Holding a flashlight, I went before the curtain and told the audience I was sorry but we couldn’t give a show and they could stop at the box office for a refund.

Suddenly a man in the third row stood up and said, “Mrs Harmon, I don’t think you have to do that. If  you’ll open the doors I’ll drive my car right up on the sidewalk. With my strong headlights I’m sure I can throw enough light on the stage for the show to go on.”

We’ll always be grateful to that man. Business wasn’t so good that week, and it would have killed our whole season if we’d had to refund. Who was the man? Sherwood Day, grandson of Clarence Day, who wrote the original book, Life With Father.

Back to Julius Caesar. After 15 minutes or so or the audience amusing themselves with potential causes for the blackout—did someone say “Good luck”? Mention the Scottish play? Was one of the show’s acknowledged “major sponsors,” the United Illuminating Company, aware of this?—James Andreassi emerged again. He had bad news. UI was indeed on the case, but wouldn’t arrive for at least another quarter hour, and there was no guarantee that things would get fixed even then. Andreassi declared the performance cancelled. He tried to comfort the audience by telling them all they’d missed: the character Andreassi plays, Brutus, stabs Caesar, and that’s pretty much it.

“Show the stabbing!,” someone heckled. But this was not one of those situations where the actors could brashly will a production to life despite a technical mishap. For one thing, the battery-operated mics would not last the length of an unelectrified performance. (One also suspects that the Actors Equity union, which represents all the principal players in the show, would frown on a situation where actors were encouraged to stumble around on a multi-platformed stage in the dark.) Andreassi said that if we wanted to see the cast, they’d be at Delaney’s Pub. “We’ve lost this and that,” he said, “but never the full electric power.”

Exiting the park, I learned that the culprit appeared to be the company’s own electric transformer. Nobody to blame, just a machine. Jamie Burnett, who’s done the electrical design (and many many other things) for Elm Shakespeare since the company started, says it wasn’t overloaded. It just didn’t work.

The show will presumably go on Thursday night. I hope that all the elderly people who were bused in from Hamden’s Whitney Center will be able to return. I was planning to review last night’s performance, but can’t attend again until at least Sunday due to a different summer Shakespeare offering (a teen pop-music take on Romeo and Juliet at the Long Wharf Theatre), the opening of the new play Oblivion at Westport Country Playhouse, and other commitments.

Nice that there are so many theater things to do in August, from light entertainment to pitch-black tragedy. I will return to praise Caesar at a later date, when he is not buried in darkness. And I think this would be an appropriate time to suggest that we all consider making generous financial donations to the Elm Shakespeare Company. Sucks when you can’t afford to keep the power on.

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