Monday, October 07, 2019
Women-centric “Julius Caesar” at GLT is bloody-good
Sara Bruner has proven once again that she is the queen of Shakespeare staging. As she did last season with her “The Taming of the Shrew,” her women-centric version of “Julius Caesar,” which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, is creative, well-formulated and long on clear message development.
Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” identified as “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” in the Bard’s First Folio, may well have been the first play staged in London’s Globe Theatre.
Set in 44 BC, it is a historical tragedy and, like his “Coriolanus” and “Anthony and Cleopatra,” is based on true events from Roman history.
At the time of its first staging, there was general angst in England. The reigning Queen Elizabeth was aging. Her time in power was coming to an end and there was concern because she had no heirs and wouldn’t name a successor. There was fear that at her death there would be a Civil war, like the one that wracked Rome.
The play centers on the moral dilemma of Brutus as he questions whether to join a conspiracy led by Cassius to murder the publicly adored, successful warrior, Julius Caesar, who, it is perceived, that if left to her choice, would become the dictator of Rome. This would mean the end of the republic.
Brutus struggles as he asks, “what is meant by honor, patriotism and friendship?”
Questions abound: Will Caesar declare herself emperor? Will Cassius convince Brutus to join the conspiracy? What will Mark Antony, who has offered Caesar the crown of Rome three times, do if there is a coupe? Though Caesar is cast as the protagonist, since Brutus is the driving force of the play, is she the tragic hero? How will Shakespeare resolve the conflict between envy and ambition versus honor and patriotism? Who are the heroes and the villains? Or, are there no good and bad characters?
Is there any modern-day lesson to be learned from the play?
According to the GLT program Playnotes, “Shakespeare himself foresaw the universality of this story when Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accent yet unknown!’”
Brunner, in her Director’s notes, picks up Shakespeare’s past/future idea when she states, “The function of ‘Julius Caesar’ is the same for us today as it was for Shakespeare’s audiences. It gives us perspective on our own social and political situations while offering us a little distance, and space for reflection. In this devastating tale of Rome, and its people, we are able to see glimpses of ourselves, our leaders, our history and our potential future. We see that violence begets violence and that sometimes, we can inadvertently destroy something we love in the pursuit of preserving it.”
“Julius Caesar,” both historically, and as written, is a very male-centric play…the leading characters are men…Caesar, Cassius, Mark Anthony and Brutus are males. But, need this be? Not in Bruner’s mind. She cast both Caesar and Cassius as women. The dialogue required a changing of some “he’” and “his” to “her” and “she,” but little else. She did this because, she wanted “to examine what happens when women gain access to power in a male-dominated world.”
From the viewpoint of this reviewer, putting aside my knowledge of history and the Shakespeare script, I found little real difference. This is interesting, since, as a human communication professor I know the research by Debra Tannen and Julia Woods, gender communication researchers, who indicate there is a major difference between the words that men and women use and the way they exert power. I, personally had no problem in buying into Bruner’s casting and the women using Shakespeare’s words. Though, if I were a strong chauvinist, I might have.
Bruner’s concept of bridging past to present was represented in both the set and costume design. The modernistic steel girders and wood-angled walls brought awareness that this was not Roman-columned times. The modern costumes, overlaid with classic Roman fabric draping, though it often caused some of the cast to awkwardly handle the material, also opened up the visual sense of past/present.
“Julius Caesar” is one of the Bard’s grisliest plays. Bodies are often strewn over the stage. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s works, those bodies found death not by poison or accident but by stabbing in full-view of the audience. Blood literally flowed from the wounds in the form of ribbons of red extracted from each knife stab. Yards and yards of crimson fabric were used to illuminate the slaughter. The lasting illusion was a visual tribute to the horrors of strife and war.
Laura Welsh Berg gave us a driven Cassius, balancing word versus deed. Carole Healey’s Julius Caesar was warrior right, leader strong and vindictive when need be. Nick Steen’s Mark Antony was hero handsome in developing a meaningful textured role. Lynn Robert Berg created a clear and strong Brutus. Jodi Dominick was captivating as the Soothsayer. Lyn Robert Berg (Brutus), Jillian Kates (Portia), Aled Davies (Cicero), and Alex Syiek (Casca) were all strong in developing clear characterizations.
Russell Metheny’s scenic design, Leah Piehl’s costumes, Rick Martin’s lighting and Matthew Webb’s incidental music and sound design well highlighted the staging.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The production is riveting. It is fast paced, lines clearly stated, actions exciting, and acting well-textured. This is Shakespeare staging and performance at its finest. It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys good theater. Kudos to Sara Bruner and her fine cast and technical staff!
The show runs through November 3, 2019 in the Hanna Theatre. Tickets can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to http://www.greatlakestheater.org/