By Karen Topham
During the April 3, 2021 edition of Saturday Night Live, one sketch called ‘Proud Parents” revolved around a couple whose med school-bound son shocks them by informing them that he has decided to become a poet instead of a doctor. Their outrage at this revelation is perhaps best exemplified when one of them, after suffering an injury, sarcastically calls out, “Is there a poet in the house?” Of course, the stereotype of the starving poet is nothing new. Even William Shakespeare, a poet himself, played on it: the poor poet is perhaps a perfect icon for someone who lives on the outside of society while exhaustively trying to understand it.
Tim Crouch’s 2012 monologue I, Cinna (the poet) relates the plot of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar through the point of view of one such struggling artist, an extremely minor character whose entire appearance in that play is the mistaken identity that results in his brutal death at the hands of an out of control mob. Here, though, Crouch zooms in on this doomed minor poet (whom the mob kills not only due to his sharing a name with one of the conspirators but also, as one man cries out, for his “bad verses”).
Updated for the modern era, I, Cinna takes us into the poet’s home as he is desperately trying to find a subject for a new poem while also obsessed with the assassination of Caesar and the events that follow. Director Tyrone Phillips makes liberal use of multiple cameras and angles including both the character’s video camera and computer to allow us to see Cinna more closely as well as to keep things visually interesting. (All of the other cameras are remotely operated due to COVID; actor Julian Parker is alone onstage—on a Yu Shibagaki set designed to look like a well-lived-in, cluttered apartment—throughout the performance.)
Parker’s highly personal, wrenching performance invites us to empathize with this man who labels himself a poet but struggles with his writing. During the play, we are asked to become involved by writing things ourselves, from single words to a full poem. (Phillips, apparently forgetting that video can be paused, provides time for this writing by pulling back to a bird’s-eye shot of the room and allowing Mikhail Fiksel’s sound to carry us—and Cinna—along. It is a technique that does feel a bit forced, and you’d be forgiven to want to skip through it, though for the most part Phillips’ direction is on point.) As we too wrangle with putting words to paper, Crouch and Phillips make Cinna’s angst more tangible.
But there is more at play here than a poet with writer’s block. As the play moves on, Cinna becomes more and more immersed in news reports of what is happening in the Forum. He is torn as he vacillates between supporting the conspirators (who, after all, were attempting to save the Republic) and those who riot against them for their murder of the beloved Caesar. It’s hard to miss the parallels between these events and the political conflicts we have been living through, though Crouch does not really choose sides as his script instead turns to focus on the Insurrection-like riots that fill the streets of Rome. Either side, it appears, is capable of destroying everything through violence, and it is so easy for even unaffiliated citizens to suffer for it.
I, Cinna lacks the tragic weight of Crouch’s I, Banquo (also currently streaming at chicagoshakes.com) partly because its central figure is so tangential to the original work but also because there is ultimately no real motivation for his ever going out into the riot at all. He’s safe at home for almost the whole play and knows the danger that venturing into that crowd brings, realizes that such an action could be suicidal, yet (mostly because the Bard places him there) he heads out to his death anyway. As he himself reflects, “I have no will to wander forth of doors, Yet something leads me forth.” The poet’s desperate inner need to understand his world—no matter the consequences—might make him harder to comprehend. Parker’s performance, though, both intimate and intense, makes this hour-long video well worth your time. The play is available through May 2.