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Theatre in Review: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Theatre for a New Audience)

Brandon J. Dirden, Matthew Amendt. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

If you stare -- very, very hard -- at Shana Cooper's production of Shakespeare's political thriller, you can see the outlines of a vision that seems all too relevant to today's America. It begins in organized chaos, with a crowd of plebeians running riot -- shirtless, masked, and sporting dreadlocks. They could be an Occupy cell or a gang of soccer hooligans. (My first thought was, Have the Visigoths taken over already?) They certainly have the city for it: Sibyl Wickersheimer's set is an arrangement of scaffolds fronted with tarp or torn-up plasterboard. This is not the glory that was Ancient Rome: It has the feel of an abandoned construction project, and, over the course of the play, it all but falls apart. It's an appropriate backdrop for a society that is suppurating with intrigue and power lust, overseen by a Caesar who, pompous and pompadoured, enjoys humiliating his associates in public. Sound familiar?

Cooper's production doesn't make the mistake of Oscar Eustis' 2017 staging at the Delacorte, which turned Caesar into Donald Trump, giving Kellyanne Conway and her opportunistic crowd the chance to complain that left-wing America was playing the assassination card. But, make no mistake, this is a Julius Caesar for today. The murder of Caesar is a notably messy affair -- as Alfred Hitchcock was fond of noting, killing a man isn't easy -- so much so that, at one point, the victim, scrambling to escape, is dragged back onstage by his legs. In the immediate aftermath, his killers surround him, exhausted, bloodstained, almost fearful of what their fury has produced. When Cinna and Cassius, two of the conspirators -- trying to wring triumph from horror -- cry out, "Liberty! Freedom!," the words ring remarkably hollow. And Marc Antony's funeral oration for Caesar has rarely, if ever, come across as such a naked act of manipulation.

This is a conversation for another day, but one of the fascinations of Julius Caesar is how it consistently seems to reflect the current political situation. In the early 2000s, it seemed to be a parable about the dangers of regime change. Seen in the very different light of 2019, it comes across, loud and clear, as a baleful prophecy about populism run riot in a Rome overwhelmed by tribalism and mob rule. (It's a truism that Shakespeare's plays are timeless, but this and other studies of the transfer of power are so acute that, were he with us today, one feels that any of the 2020 frontrunners could profitably sign him on as an operative.) In many ways, Cooper, a new face here with extensive regional credits and a professorship at Northwestern, has smartly corralled the text, turning it into an uncannily accurate mirror of these divided times.

The power of this Julius Caesar is only a sometime thing, however, thanks to an uneven cast whose members have apparently not yet settled on a unified acting style. Indeed, many of the principals seem to be experimenting with various approaches, often reaching for grand-manner gestures that they can't quite pull off. The best Julius Caesar in my experience, Nicholas Hytner's staging for The Bridge Theatre in London (admittedly seen in National Theatre Live cinema transcription), featured Ben Whishaw and Michelle Fairley as a Brutus and Cassius who plotted with icy precision, moving purposefully to commit murder and facing the disaster that follows with stoicism and self-awareness. Karin Coonrod's fine 2003 staging for Theatre for a New Audience, featuring Thomas Hammond and Daniel Oreskes as Brutus and Cassius, respectively, had a revivifying ice water running through its veins.

The current cast is all over the place. Matthew Amendt's Cassius has his striking moments, especially at first, but the character bubbles over with a not entirely earned rage; he also has an odd habit of selecting a word -- any word -- in a sentence and coming down hard on it; it's a technique that breaks up the verse. Brandon J. Dirden's Brutus is so world-weary that he often seems to be addressing the air rather than his fellow conspirators, straining for music not contained in the words. Stephen Michael Spencer's Casca (spelled "Caska" in the program) is heavily influenced by the production's penchant for chest-pounding and warlike glares right out of Mel Gibson's Braveheart. Everyone is so jaw-grindingly intense as to be fatiguing; if this production is meant to illustrate the toxic effects of testosterone in politics, then it is a raging -- and I do mean raging -- success.

Another highly undermining touch is the choreography of Erika Chong Shuch, which turns the battle scenes that consume most of the later passages into aerobic exercises; despite all the synchronized shouting, they are lacking in ferocity. Also, Julius Caesar works best when taken at a fast pace; I've seen productions that barely go beyond the two-hour mark. At two hours and forty minutes, this version at times drags badly.

Some of the best performances are the most understated, including Ted Deasy's Metellus Cimber, another member of the anti-Julius Caesar brigade, and Benjamin Bonenfant, quietly lethal as Octavius Caesar, who rains down revenge on Brutus, Cassius, and the others. I'm of two minds about the Marc Antony of Jordan Barbour; his funeral oration for Caesar is a highly effective act of underhandedness, but in other scenes he lacks a certain warrior stature. The rest of the production design -- Christopher Akerlind's starkly angled lighting, Raquel Barreto's modern-dress costumes, and Paul James Prendergast's percussive sound design -- are all first-class.

Overall, this is a Julius Caesar that bemuses: It's good on the big ideas, much weaker on the details needed to support them. Ultimately, it telegraphs its intentions too overtly; there's too much carrying on, and not enough conspiracy. But once again, the play proves to be an uncanny mirror of this unhappy time. -- David Barbour


(29 March 2019)

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