Theater Review: ‘Julius Caesar,’ a play for our times
By William Shakespeare
Presented by Saint James Players
Friday, Sept. 20, and Saturday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m.
St. James Episcopal Church, 581 Valley Road
By GWEN OREL
William Shakespeare’s 1599 tragedy “Julius Caesar” raises questions that are all too relevant in a world where democracies regularly slide into authoritarianism.
Can conspiracy be noble?
Is the loyalty of the mob worth keeping?
Is a pre-emptive strike (or even assassination) ever justified?
We know what Shakespeare thought about the mob from his other plays; “Coriolanus” makes it pretty clear Shakespeare had little use for just folks. In “Julius Caesar,” the Romans that love Caesar are willing to turn on him and then turn back, depending on whose speech they hear.
A mob turns on an innocent man merely because he has the same name as someone guilty — even when the mob knows that, they don’t care.
It’s a big play, and an ambitious project (get it) for a community theater such as The Saint James Players.
This is the company’s ninth annual production. The show is full of creativity and interesting takes on the story, though it does not wholly succeed.
Shakespeare begins the action with the return of a triumphant Caesar to Rome. Cassius, a senator, convinces Brutus, also a senator, that Caesar desires to be crowned king, and that the three times he rejected the crown are really a feint.
Rome in “Julius Caesar” isn’t really a Republic, but an oligarchy; but some senators feared it was about to turn into a dictatorship.
A group of conspirators slays Caesar in front of the senate building, on the Ides of March.
Caesar’s loyal general Marc Antony gains permission to speak at the funeral oration, and though he constantly praises Brutus, saying “for Brutus is an honorable man,” he slyly manipulates the crowd’s emotions so that by the end of the speech, they love Caesar again, hate the conspirators, and a Civil War breaks out. (Moral of the story: always speak last.)
Shakespeare’s play is based on a real event: in 44 B.C., Brutus and a bunch of conspirators did in fact slay Caesar. A war did follow, and Brutus and Cassius were defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.E.
Marc Antony, Caesar’s son Octavius, and Lepidus form the “Second Triumvirate”: a dictatorship of three.
Directors Kerr Lockhart and Ivan Knapp change gender for a few of the characters: Caesar, played by Alicia Whavers, is a woman, and pronouns are changed accordingly. She stays a woman even when her wife Calpurnia comes on, suggesting that this Rome is very modern indeed.
This is a world of modern dress (design by Phil Delp and Wren Delp), including a soothsayer (Jamie Pagliaro, also the student actor troupe coordinator) wearing a turban and a tie-dyed shirt. He’s the one who warns Caesar to beware the Ides of March, and in this production, he’s also comic relief. But it’s clearly not contemporary Rome either, despite the witty insertions of recorded “broadcasts from CNN” to reveal Shakespeare’s ominous signs and portents. (But when the newscasters speak into the mics for press conference it’s jarring that the sound is not miked.)
Brutus is also played by a woman (Wendy Baron Arnold), but apparently she’s playing a man, since the character dresses like a male and male pronouns are used.
Set design by Brad Whitley is spare and elegant, with draped curtains.
Things that don’t work:
But speaking of the set, if you’re going to have actors use the central aisle of the sanctuary, light them, even if with handheld flashlights (lighting design by Molly Sailer, whose lights for the main area are evocative).
The sound cues were endless, and too loud. (Whitley also designed the sound.) Even if the concept was to treat the play like an epic film, an audience wants to hear Shakespeare’s beautiful language, not an extended helicopter cue. A few sound cues are worthwhile — trumpets to herald Caesar’s arrival into Rome — others seem to just take time, like music underneath the poet Cinna’s arrival.
Having Cinna surrounded by youngsters was interesting, however, and suggestive of young soldiers and urban gangs.
Shakespeare really did not like the mob.
The sound cues also have the effect of slowing down the pace, as actors speak above it or overenunciate. Felipe Rodriguez’ Cassius, who does have a “lean and hungry look,” and whose motivations are nicely opaque, seems in particular to want to duet with the sound cues, and he also mangles a few famous lines.
Things that were terrific:
Antony (Paul Donovan) doesn’t give us his knowing smirk until after he’s begun to manipulate people. For a good while, Donovan convincingly plays a scared suck-up. Trained at HB Studios, he would fit in with a professional production.
Arnold’s Brutus shows the nobility that Antony does see in him at the end. Her voice sometimes shakes with the weight of her decisions, and she truly projects gravitas.
A few other standout performers were Tom Sherlock’s conspirator Casca and Frankie Spear’s Portia, the wife of Brutus.
The crowd works well, whether as a mob, or as warriors. Directors Lockhardt and Kerr keep the large cast moving.
Overall, whether or not the CNN broadcasts feel too close to home, “Julius Caesar” proves again that it is a play for all time, and for our time.