Arts and Entertainment | Theater

Oracular Theatre company debuts with ‘Julius Caesar’

Despite the Shakespearean warning, a new theater company is putting on a production of “Julius Caesar”on campus  near the ides of March. 

Oracular was founded by Columbia professor and alumnus Damon Horowitz, and Sybille Bruun, an actor an director, as well as as the co-founder and executive director of the Shakespeare Forum, a New York-based theater collaborative.

Horowitz, who serves as Google’s in-house philosopher and director of engineering, is making his directorial debut with Oracular’s first production, “Julius Caesar,” which opens March 19 in Schapiro Theater. Bruun serves as the company’s artistic director.

Horowitz said that his background in computer engineering and entrepreneurship lends itself to directing a play. 

“There’s a lot of systems thinking involved in directing. It’s just like when you’re building a large software system and you have to think about all of the component parts and how they’re going to work together and produce an environment where then a human being is going to come in and interact with this complicated system,” Horowitz said. “Directing is a lot like that—firing off lots of different things, then it all has to come together in a certain way.”

Horowitz’s background in classical texts—he holds a Ph. D. in philosophy from Stanford and teaches Contemporary Civilization—is evident in his approach to theater and in the title of the company itself. The name, Horowitz said, comes from the idea of “an oracular utterance,” which “carries meaning beyond that which the speaker intends.” 

When it comes to interpreting Shakespearean plays—works rife with motifs and metaphors—the meanings of words often extend beyond the playwright’s initial intention. 

“If you think about broad questions of interpretation ... only part of how you find meaning is done by examining the author’s original intention,” he said. “You also look at ... circumstances, you also look at what the words by themselves mean, regardless of the author’s intention. So a lot of heightened speech in theater is oracular utterance of the sort where you can look and find levels of meaning beyond just what the character’s intending with them.”

As an example, Horowitz cited the oft-quoted line from Act 2, Scene 2 of “Romeo and Juliet,” which he described as the “prototypical case” of metaphorical oracular utterance: “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Daniel O’Neill, CC ’13, who plays the famed betrayer Brutus in Oracular’s production of “Julius Caesar,” spoke about utilizing Horowitz’s method in the Shakespearian performance.

“A lot of people say that they prefer reading Shakespeare because, in an academic context, there are so many layers of meaning, and how can an actor get all that across? When you see a production, an actor can only bring out one meaning, and that’s limiting,” O’Neill said. “But I think the Oracular Theatre is trying to use language in a way, and poetry, that maybe is closer to what the actors in Shakespeare’s time did, which has the potential to echo many, many meanings at once for an audience.”

O’Neill has had past experience with Shakespeare in his thesis performance as Autolycus in the Barnard theater department’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” and in a production of “Titus Andronicus” at the Kraine Theater in the East Village. 

“The hardest thing in Shakespeare, the most important, is just to make the story make sense to the audience,” O’Neill said, adding that, at Oracular, the company, “intention and parsing and phrasing of the language is really strong and clear, and I think that’s going to serve our production well.”

For O’Neill, Oracular’s the strong emphasis on language is epitomized in Act 2, Scene 1 of “Julius Caesar.”

“He [Brutus] has a lot of different scenes with different people, and then he’s left alone to have these soliloquies,” O’Neill said. “And so the only way that you can really stay focused throughout that is to rely on the language.”

Looking to the future, Horowitz said that he hopes to direct additional shows for Oracular, emphasizing the rising popularity of innovative productions of Shakespeare’s works in the theater community.

“There’s a huge hunger now for different approaches to Shakespeare—for different approaches to theater in general—things which are driven not by the peculiar commercial realities of the industry and that have some other motivating force,” Horowitz said. “We’re really just right at the beginning, but already there are things that have happened that have made it clear that this is a rich direction to go in.”

Oracular Theatre’s production of “Julius Caesar” runs through March 22 in Schapiro Theater, which is located in the basement of Schapiro Hall. Tickets are free and must be reserved in advance through the company’s website.  

David Salazar contributed reporting to this piece. 

zoe.miller@columbiaspectator.com | @zoe_m_miller

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