Caesar’ Proves Political Strife Need Not Be Without Heart
“Julius Caesar” is widely considered a political thriller driven by shrewd, macho Romans vying for power. The production currently at the Shakespeare Theatre, however, is surprisingly emotional. From Caesar’s helpless assassination, to young Mark Antony’s passionate funeral address, to the guilt exuded by Brutus and Cassius for Caesar’s murder, we get a sense that these mighty men may actually be the type to ask for directions — if it meant preserving what they consider to be justice.
Director David Muse described the production as primarily a “boy’s play” and that directing it “felt like sports practice or an action movie,” although this doesn’t mean “Julius Caesar” shies away from delving deep into the characters’ feelings.
In fact, rather than being a play about war and conquest, it’s more an exploration of impassioned loyalties. And, given the fact these are men making history, the characters’ sometimes conflicted emotional cards are played against the backdrop of militant combat.
All of the principals demonstrate that this is bloodshed with a conscience. Dan Kremer plays an aging, vulnerable Caesar who finds himself Rome’s dictator and the target of rebel senators who want to save the integrity of the Roman Republic. Following Caesar’s murder though, the guilty consciences go into overdrive: Conflicted Brutus, once Caesar’s right-hand man, is swayed to kill but never seems content with his decision. Antony risks his own death in his steadfast ties to Caesar. And Cassius, who instigated Caesar’s death, is tragically haunted by his bad deeds.
Muse even manipulates the play’s beginning to invoke strong emotional sentiment. Out of the darkness, the soothsayer, who later famously warns Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” rises up out of the floor, kneeling, chanting and trembling ominously in a bath of chalk as drums beat in the background. In the text, the script starts more benignly, with the soothsayer not appearing until the second scene of Act II.
Muse — the Shakespeare Theatre’s associate director who makes his main-stage directing debut with this production — also made some other minor changes to take advantage of the fact that “Julius Caesar” is the first part of a revolving “Roman Repertory,” playing concurrently with “Antony and Cleopatra” (see related article).
“We took minor characters that were introduced in ‘Julius Caesar’ and crossed them over to ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’” Muse explained during the Shakespeare Theatre’s “Windows” discussion session. “We also invented some characters who appear in both plays to create more of an arc between the plays.”
This is the second revolving repertory that the Shakespeare Theatre has staged at its new Sidney Harman Hall; the first involved two plays by Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. The Harman Hall’s physical expanse is apropos for Marlowe’s epic-like tales as well as the larger-than-life stories of “Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” This staging of the latter, for example, has 42 scenes that whisk by at breakneck speed, which could create traffic problems on a smaller stage and set, Muse noted.
The directed added that the Shakespeare Theatre will take a break next year from revolving repertory due to its logistical challenges. Next season the company will stage two plays simultaneously — one in the Lansburgh Theatre and the other at Harman Hall — and will return to repertory at a later date.
Although the Marlowe productions used two different sets, set designer James Noone created one mammoth set for the Roman Repertory, consisting of an imperial array of wood and gold walls, flights of stairs, and various platforms from which flags with Caesar’s mug hang and stare out into the audience.
The Shakespeare Theatre also used different effects to create the illusion of a changing set. Much of the atmosphere is created by Mark McCullough’s lighting, which cleverly and repeatedly spotlights groups of characters — assassination plotters planning Caesar’s murder, or common citizens reacting to Antony’s speech — engaged in private discussions.
A Roman chalking of the name “CAESAR” on a doorway after the ruler accepts the crown also adds a layer to the set, especially when juxtaposed with the name “BRUTUS,” which Cassius chalks onto the opposing door while convincing his brother to take the power for himself. Seeing these two names side by side reinforces Cassius’s exclamation: “Why should that name [Caesar] be sounded more than yours? Write them together, yours is as fair a name; sound them, it doth become the mouth as well.”
Directing and technological tricks aside, this production jumps off the stage because of its fearless acting. Tom Hammond, a dashing and thoughtful Brutus, is well paired with Scott Parkinson, a slighter, more intense and angry Cassius. Andrew Long — who was cast last minute in the role originally planned for Patrick Page (who had to bow out because of a scheduling conflict) — appears effortlessly as Mark Antony, the rough-and-tumble Roman turned serious warrior.
Even the small part of Portia, Brutus’s wife, is enlarged significantly through Nancy Rodriguez’s emotionally piercing portrayal of a woman weakened by her husband’s secrecy. “Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure?” she shrilly cries at Brutus’s rebuffs. The intensity of her suffering also serves to expose a harsher side of Brutus that he doesn’t always show in public.
In all, this provoking production is sure to incite enough curiosity to pull audiences back for the second part of this Roman Repertory, “Antony and Cleopatra,” which the Shakespeare Theatre also describes as “A Tale of Two Antonys” and in a way, a sort of “sequel” to the Caesar saga.
Julius Caesar through July 6 Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall 610 F St., NW Tickets are .50 to .75 For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.