Entertainment » Theatre

Julius Caesar

by Michael  Cox
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday May 30, 2015
Brutus (Joe Short) in "Julius Caesar"
Brutus (Joe Short) in "Julius Caesar"  

In Bridge Rep's production of Shakespeare's most "American" tragedy "Julius Caesar," director Olivia D'Ambrosio reduces the text and condenses the staging to emphasize some of Shakespeare's most vibrant themes -- humanity's desire for equality as opposed to its need for leadership and the battle between passion and reason.

The play begins with Lindsay Engle and Anneke Reich, speaking to us in modern English and introducing us to the action of the play. This chorus in no way attempts to mirror the Bard's Elizabethan poetry; they refer to the specific minute of the day, as though they are noting it from a digital clock or reading it from a crime scene report. This presentational device is one way that the director abridges the play to a 100 minute-long, intermission-free experience.

The action revolves around Marcus Brutus (Joe Short) a politician whose philosophical ideals are derived from Stoicism, a Hellenistic school of thought that vilifies emotions and blames them for errors in judgment. This aligns with one of Shakespeare's favorite themes: The battle between passion and reason. Neither emotion or intellect is wrong in and of itself, but characters like Hamlet insist they should be balanced.

Cassius (John Tracey) and Juan C. Rodriguez in "Julius Caesar"  

Brutus personifies the Roman Empire, so when his emotions and his sensibility are thrown out of whack by his brother-in-law Caius Cassius (John Tracey), he makes choices that lead to his downfall -- he assassinates Julius Caesar.

Dante Alighieri thought of Cassius as one of the truly evil people in history, and resigned the regicidal Roman senator to be chewed by one of the three mouths of Satan, in the center of Hell, for all eternity. But Shakespeare was more compassionate in his portrayal of Cassius.

The dude was just really insecure, and he had all kinds of chips on his shoulder. Shakespeare's Cassius is jealous of Caesar and envious of Brutus. (Cassius was passed over for a rather important government position that Brutus, his junior, landed.)

Referred to as Shakespeare's most humorless tragedy, "Julius Caesar" is actually brimming with irony and vicious, sardonic wit. And when it comes to being catty, the meanest of the mean girls is Cassius.

In this production, he is short and slight in a senate full of men with ripped, gym-built bodies (Juan C. Rodriguez, Jacob Athyal and Bari Robinson). While the fashion in Rome is clearly to wear skinny jeans, Cassius chooses to mask his waistline with a more relaxed fit.

Stephanie Brownell's costumes are completely contemporary and look as though they could have been taken from the actor's own wardrobes, focusing her canvas of earth tones and whites with well-chosen splashes of red on certain characters.

The design elements are clean and simple, leaving no room for the cheesy and amateurish staging conventions that we've become so accustomed to in college and community theatre productions of this show.

D'Ambrosio foregoes the blood and the togas (not unusual), but she also abandons the daggers and even the dead bodies. The idea is to return to the style of staging popular in Shakespeare's time, where visual elements are suggested in the text and created within the mind of the audience.

Caesar (Brooks Reeves) in "Julius Caesar"  

Esme Allen's scenic design is a broken-down heap of wooden furniture built into a façade, and this visual theme continues into the props. (Instead of holding daggers, the conspirators hold the fragmented legs of chairs.)

The lighting design (by Stephen Petrilli) demarcates D'Ambrosio's frequent use of expressionistic elements in her staging. Attuning her style to an audience comfortable with the language of film editing, the director uses techniques like slow-motion and freeze frame tableau. Abrupt shifts in lighting (within the context of a scene and non-naturalistically motivated) act as a close-up to focus our attention and emphasize subjectivity in a moment - (it's the electrician's equivalent of breaking the fourth wall).

D'Ambrosio casts against type in her portrayal of Julius Caesar, the megalomaniac whose hubris plants terror in the hearts of free-thinking men. Brooks Reeves is one of the most generous and unpretentious actors in the city. Because he's so precise in his motivation, so clear in his intentions and action, Reeves makes everyone in the cast work harder. An actor will look like an ass if he reaches into a histrionic bag of tricks with Reeves on stage.

The company packs a lot of play into a brief amount of time. Because of this, there are moments that feel like the actors are charging though long speeches to get to the end. Reeves remains in the moment, and his scenes are charged with suspense.

At the end of the 16th Century, when this play was written, Elizabethan England feared the passing of a strong leader, Queen Elizabeth. The people worried that a civil war similar to that of Rome might break out after her death. Our country, too, is on the verge of a change in leadership, and D'Ambrosio plays on current politics in her casting.

The women in "Julius Caesar" have premonitions, divined through their uncontrollable emotions. The perfect example of this is Caesar's wife Calpurnia (Bridgette Hayes), who prophesies the leader's death in her dreams. Brutus' wife Portia (Kate Paulsen) is also irrational. (We know that she cuts herself and swallows hot coals, but Paulsen's performance is chillingly placid.)

Portia (Kate Paulsen) in "Julius Caesar"  

To counter-balance some sexist ideas, D'Ambrosio casts Mark Antony as a woman.

When everyone else in the play is so emotional that they are unable to think straight, Antony (Tiffany Nichole Greene) is completely rational. In fact, she plays on the Roman people's emotions (not their reason) to turn them against Brutus and the other conspirators.

The best part of this production is the unity of all the players on stage. Much as we'd like it to be different, in Rome, Elizabethan England and America, people are not equal. And the caste system within the theatre is particularly delineated -- you have your leads, your supporting players and your spear-carriers.

Will Madden is the catch-all messenger/spear-carrier in this show. And in this "Caesar" he plays at least six of Brutus' servants, all condensed into one. Because of this, the servant Lucius has a developed relationship with the hero and a full character arc. (In the original version, Lucius refuses to help Brutus commit suicide. In D'Ambrosio's version he refuses and then relents.)

Another actor may have stumbled with this character's schizophrenia, but where other actors use external clues to indicate character (varying their dialect, walking with a limp, etc.), Madden's characters are born from within.

One of the most powerful moments of the play happens when Madden enters as a nameless servant to Antony. In the middle of his dispatch, he stops and sees the fallen body of his leader. His only words are "O, Caesar," but Madden's face speaks volumes. In this intimate, 48-seat theatre we see each image in the actor's mind as the gloss of loss and fear fills his cobalt-blue eyes. No one is lying on the ground, but Madden is able to visualize the body of Caesar, so the audience does as well.

"Julius Caesar" runs through May 30 in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts (527 Tremont St, Boston). For tickets and more information visit www.bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600.


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