Theater Review: Julius Caesar
When I invited my teenage boys to attend James Ricks’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, they rapidly declined citing school and job obligations. “I had to read it in English,” my oldest said. A coworker can still recite entire speeches from the play she had to memorize in high school years ago. She also declined my invitation. And my partner, in the midst of packing for three weeks of “playing soldier” with the Army Reserves donned his helmet exclaiming, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” He was sorry he couldn’t attend, but already “knows the story line.”
And it is true. I was hard pressed to find anyone who hadn’t been forced to read, or act in, or attend a performance of Julius Caesar; one of Shakespeare’s most oft produced plays. And I had read it, been forced to memorize lines (“But I am constant as the Northern Star, of whose true fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament”), and had seen performances as well. I was prepared to take copious notes to formulate my review.
The plot, of course, was familiar. Brutus, Cassius, and other notable Romans conspire to murder Caesar believing his ambition will destroy the Roman Republic. Though initially supportive of the conspirators, the Romans are swayed by Caesar’s right-hand man, Mark Antony, who gives a stirring speech (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”). The conspirators are chased out of Rome, and two armies form: one side following the conspirators; the other, Antony. Antony’s force is mightier and they surround Brutus and Cassius who kill themselves to avoid capture.
Nothing new here. So why then was I so captivated that I set down my notes the moment the cast paraded onto the stage wearing identical featureless drab-brown masks? The answer lies in Ricks’ unique artistic direction, the exceptional performances delivered by a small cast, and, surprisingly, the venue itself—Richmond Center Stage’s 200-seat Gottwald Playhouse. Intuitively, it would seem that such a powerful and dramatic play would be better suited to a larger venue. Instead, the intimacy of the space allowed for a more nuanced presentation. Along with murder, bloodshed, and political intrigue, the venue allowed for the play’s more “human” character to be revealed. In my favorite moment in the play, Brutus, played brilliantly by Dan Stearns, summons his servant, Lucius to sing to him as he goes to sleep. Brutus, struggling with the difficult choices he faces, is lulled into a calm slumber. And I cried. 10th-grader Ben Fox, who portrayed Lucius, told me afterwards the song was an adaptation of a lesser known Sting song—The Pirate’s Bride. The melody, and Ben’s voice, were haunting.
Also moving was Katrinah Carol Lewis’ portrayal of the pregnant Portia who begs her husband to take her into his confidence. Shakespeare’s plays don’t offer many female roles. But in Portia, we get a strong, confident, rational woman. Although he lies to her, it is clear that the larger-than-life Brutus respects and loves his wife, and the audience is privy to his tenderness.
In a unique “Talk Back” segment at the end of the play, the cast assembled on stage and fielded questions from the audience. Ricks discussed the physical setting of the production. While it might have been “obvious” and “timely” to set the play in the modern day Middle East, he chose to set it in “a world redolent of early twentieth century Europe.” With the soviet-looking set design (non-descript gray concrete square buildings), the militaristic costumes, and the use of “popular weapons wielded by political ideologies that were so controversial at the time” it is easy to imagine Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy as the backdrop. Shakespeare’s 16th-century image of the world was as relevant to the soviet 1930s as it is in Afghanistan or Iraq today.
While attendance wasn’t high, it did help bolster the feeling of intimacy. It is unfortunate that this well-deserving production didn’t have more attendees, but it isn’t too late; the play runs through April 20, 2013. Although “I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts: I am no orator…” I do urge you attend this exceptional production. And do bring your friends, Romans, and countrymen.
lie Harthill Clayton is an out and proud bisexual with a passion for reading, writing . . . and NOT arithmetic. She’s the proud mom of two young adult men and is slowly adjusting to having them both away at college. Her work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Internet Review of Books, Curve Magazine, Lambda Literary and more. She is the newest member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. A paralegal by day, Julie spends her free time knitting, writing, and reading anything she can get her hands on. She lives in Richmond with her partner, local artist David Turner, and their mischievous and loving hunting dog, Max.
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