The performance begins at 7:00 PM and runs 2 hours and 15 minutes without an intermission. . . . We strongly recommend that you use the restrooms at Brooklyn Roasting Company. The St. Ann’s Warehouse restrooms will only be available immediately prior to the start of the performance. For the safety of our audiences and actors, there will be no re-entry to the theater if you have to leave your seat during the performance. There will be no intermission.
So I was informed this week by an email confirmation of a ticket to the Donmar's Julius Caesar, at St. Ann's Warehouse, which is playing this month just a half block for the East River. This is not a review of the performance—that will come on Howlround, I think, sometime this month—but rather of the particular bit of anxiety engendered by that email.
"Two hours fifteen?" it made me think. "No bathroom? Jeez."
(Be here warned that this post acknowledges certain facts of human biology—namely that sometimes men and women have to go to the bathroom.)
I've been wary of theatrical bathroom problems since February, when I made the mistake of having a couple of beers before Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama. The beers ran right through me, as beers have a way of doing, and I spent the first act of that lovely show in squirming agony, like a five year-old on a road trip with Mitt "No Bathroom Breaks" Romney. Thankfully, that show had an intermission, and I was able to enjoy the second half in comfort. Julius Caesar would offer no such escape hatch.
We are grown ups, of course, and can control our bladders, but that doesn't mean it's very much fun to do so. Coffee, tea, beer and cigarettes are all wonderful things to have before a play, and all are diuretics. Being told that you have to hold it for two hours plus, I think, is a mental diuretic as well.
A few hours before curtain on Saturday, I set aside my tea, and looked away from any offers of beer. Water, I sipped sparingly. A trip to the theater had turned into the night before surgery. This proved moot, however, when I reached the theater, and found out that all of my nervous skittering had overlooked an important fact: my ticket was for Sunday, not Saturday. This was a particularly boneheaded mistake, as you could see if you looked at my datebook, which contained exactly one item for the entire week of Nov. 30 to Oct. 6: "Julius Caesar," it said, on Sunday. But who bothers looking at their datebook?
The front of house staff was gracious, and offered to seat me that night for the performance beginning an hour later than I had thought, but I decided I'd rather have my Saturday to myself, and went home. I repeated my procedure Sunday, scorning anything that might later cause a tickle in my bladder, and by the time I arrived at the gloomy Brooklyn waterfront, mouth and bladder were both stone dry. St. Ann's had set up a makeshift lobby inside the adjacent Brooklyn Roasting Company—a cruel gag for those who were about to have their restroom rights stricken—and the winding line for the bathrooms had the nervous buzz of the crowd waiting for the last helicopter out of Saigon.
I waited by the river—where some civic art-minded goon had thoughtfully woven plastic strips through a chain link fence, obscuring the view of the skyline and Manhattan Bridge—and listened as the Pirates took a 3-2 lead over the Cardinals, on vital sacrifice fly. They were still leading when the Donmar company, dressed as prison wardens, herded us into the space. "There are toilet facilities on the left," they told us, "and we suggest you use them now." Truly, theatergoing is a romantic pursuit. Behind me, a grizzled Englishman announced, "It's a fucking prison, shut the fuck up. I don't want to live the experience, I just want to watch it."
The auditorium had been given a jailhouse makeover. The seats were plastic, armless and hard, and the only air conditioning was a few ceiling fans which seemed to have no more than ceremonial value. I'm not usually one to whine about a theater, but the seats, heat and explicit prohibition of bathroomery perplexed me. Where is the line between pampering your audience and abusing them? How long can a play get before the value gained by not having an intermission is outweighed by the distracting effects of stiff backs, jittery legs, and overfull bladders? (90 minutes, as far as I'm concerned.)
The Donmar's Julius Caesar moves quickly, and 2:15—or actually 2:00 flat, since that :15 was built in to allow the crowd time to get settled—is wonderfully short Shakespeare. But in a play that breaks so easily into halves—"Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war" is as good an act-out as any in the canon—it seems silly to risk losing your plastic chair-tortured audience by refusing them a chance to stand and stretch their legs. The honorable deaths of Cassius and Brutus, it seems to me, will not make much of an impression on an audience member whose ass is numb.
It could be that I'm making something out of nothing. Last night's crowd survived intact, save for one man who was overcome just before Caesar's assassination, and scurried out towards the bathroom, never to return. When the lights went up at the end of the performance, the grizzled Englishman leapt to his feet, and let out a war whoop of approval. A good play can make you forget discomfort, and this Julius Caesar largely manages. It's a compelling production, but a fiendishly uncomfortable one. Leave your sweater at home, skip the coffee, and bring a bottle of water—to sip on, and never gulp.