That Nagging Feeling about Julius Caesar
Maryland Shakespeare Festival, All Saints Episcopal Church, Frederick, Md.
Saturday, March 24, 2012, middle row front
Bare Bard Repertory Season
The more I see Julius Caesar, the more I appreciate this play that I’ve denigrated as dull since my first abbreviated encounter with it in high school English class. Furthermore, now that I’ve seen it twice in the past two weeks—the MGM movie of 1953 and the Maryland Shakespeare Festival Bare Bard Repertory performance—I get this nagging sense Shakespeare is speaking specifically about our own current political landscape.
Each subsequent production I see also engenders my increasing appreciation of how Shakespeare intricately weaves personality portrayals through a plot that pairs very public interactions (the Feast of Lupercal, the marketplace pulpits, the battles and their ritual suicides) with the most private interactions (conspirator to conspirator, husband and wife, general to general), and sets these against individual meditation (Brutus contemplating the conspiracy, Antony formulating his resolve, Brutus engaging with Caesar’s ghost).
This Bare Bard production contributed to my appreciation on the one hand with a stunning performance in a role I’ve hitherto considered a waste of Shakespearean ink, and on the other hand by textual cuts—not the good kind of cuts that help streamline the action but the kind that alter portraits and purposes. What might have seemed innocuous excisions in the study proved to be conspicuous alterations in Shakespeare’s intentions, and my noting these absences enhanced my appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius at work in this play.
Then again, what Shakespeare accomplished in his study is difficult to achieve on the stage—or, in this instance, the floor of All Saints Episcopal Church’s parish hall, with seats set up on three sides, the actors on three days of rehearsal, with no director performing the play with a minimum of sets and costumes (mostly white cotton toga-looking smocks and pants) and much interaction with the audience. This approach results in the liveliest of Shakespeareances, but for Julius Caesar in particular such staging requires actors to be as agile as comics in improvisational theater but as studious as scholars in classical theater. In this production, a couple of actors achieved a high level of both qualities, and while other actors could be entertaining in the space, they didn’t seem to plumb the depths of their characters in a way that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare in any space. Then again, the textual cuts may have hindered their portrayals.
For example, Brutus, the play’s leading role, is considered an honorable man, and he stands so stalwart on his sense of honesty that he undermines his capacity to wage war effectively. His tragedy is that the world is not as honest as he. Or is he just stupid? Every decision he makes is wrong, and if you don’t think so yourself, Shakespeare tells you in V.1 when Octavius and Antony remark on Brutus foolishly meeting them at Philippi (after Cassius has already told Brutus why doing so was a bad idea). JJ Area strove to make his Brutus unequivocally honorable, but cuts in the conspirators’ scenes removed Brutus’ first fumble and the initial steps in our perceiving his world view as out of synch with reality. We subsequently lost the understandable tension between him and Cassius (Stephen Lorne Williams), and that altered the dynamics of the great argument between the two in IV.2. As the play wore on, Area’s “honorable” Brutus played more as a bully, barking not only at Cassius in the argument but, throughout, at everybody else: his wife, his servants, his generals, and his friends. He even displayed such intensity when he commanded his staff to sleep in his tent that they fell to slumber as quickly as they could lest they incurred his further wrath.
A more egregious textual cut was that of Antony’s messenger to the assassins after the murder of Caesar. If this cut was made as a time-constraint decision, the consequences should have been weighed more considerately. Again, it was a missed first step that ultimately causes the character’s portrayal to stumble, for in the messenger we see how Antony carefully begins to strategize his engagement with the conspirators. With no clear sense of that strategy—or even that he has a strategy—Christina Frank’s Antony came off as Wendy Williams with a ’tude, crying at the drop of a hat and just as quickly making diva-like “duh?” gestures and put-down expressions. The wary and smooth-maneuvering Antony was totally missing here.
These two primary roles were set against two secondary players who aggregated every syllable of Shakespeare’s script for their portrayals. Bob Sheire played an arrogant Octavius, striding to front and center in his first scene with the other two triumvirs and later displaying a brashness that left Brutus and Cassius sputtering in the parley scene. As Frank’s Antony merely tried to outbrash the young Octavius, she seemed oblivious to the danger in him.
A revelation of Brutus, meanwhile, came out in his scene with his wife. Elizabeth Jernigan rescued Portia from a tradition of the dutifully whining (if not whacky) wife and found in her a firebrand of a woman equal to Shakespeare’s other such creations as Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra. Jernigan’s portrayal landed forcefully on the line “Am I your self but as it were in sort or limitation?” This Portia didn’t cotton to “limitation,” and she didn’t merely chastise Brutus and reveal her self-wound as a show of duty; she demanded the respect owed to Cato’s daughter and pointed to her wound as the mark of a woman with strong constancy equal to that of her husband, the great Brutus. Set up against this Portia, Brutus was not so much a man of honor but a man with a holier-than-thou ego, and he laid his superior morality on Cassius and the other conspirators as well as his wife. That Portia shows excessive worry in her only other scene just ahead of the assassination need not be taken as weakness but as her full understanding of what may befall. After all, Portia already knows Brutus as well as we come to know him by play’s end—she has reason to worry. Jernigan’s reading of this part was insightful, and her playing was extraordinary.
Steven Hoochuk played an imperious Caesar. You could see why the conspirators fear his growing power. But to truly understand the real danger Caesar conveyed in this production, you had to watch the tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, in the opening scene, pointedly played by Sheire and Teresa Spencer, respectively. When Flavius told Marullus to disrobe the images decked with ceremonies, Spencer’s Marullus grew visibly concerned. “May we do so?” she asked, aware of the danger, though she followed with “You know it is the Feast of Lupercal.” “It is no matter,” Sheire’s Flavius replied impatiently. “Let no images be hung with Caesar’s trophies.” Off they went to disrobe the statues and, ultimately, have their heads removed, as Casca (in an otherwise comic portrayal by Ivan Zizek) later pointed out in a well-staged moment of pause.
Yet, are the conspirators in the right? To listen to Cassius tell everybody that Rome is headed for a dictatorship that will put all Romans in bondage and lead to the nation’s destruction is to listen to a typical evening of 2012 presidential election coverage. The rhetoric is so harsh; but Cassius manages to inspire Rome’s most powerful noblemen to a cause that seems, for him, more grounded in personal dislike than government policy. Despite their shouts of “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” Cassius and Brutus fail to completely convince the people of Caesar’s danger, the people directly touched in the pocketbooks by Caesar’s military triumphs and the largesse reported in his will.
In a bit of irony that seemed to peer through this presentation, one has to wonder whether Decius (Colby Codding in a fittingly sly turn) would have been right when he said that the Senate might forego naming Caesar emperor if he didn’t go to the capital that day. Had the conspirators let him stay home, his political power might have ebbed on its own. Instead, they killed him and let loose a more dangerous power. We could play all sorts of what-if scenarios with this play and with the real history of Caesar’s assassination, but in the end you will only twist yourself up into conflicting and ultimately baseless suppositions. The big one is what if Cassius had prevailed in his opinion that Antony should fall as well as Caesar; no Antony, no famous speech, no subsequent riot putting the conspirators on the run, and Cassius becomes a big player in Roman government (think about the consequences of that, this man so willing to use kickbacks and bribery to maintain his army).
Men and women in power rise and fall, but it’s the institutions that must remain strong and steady for a society to remain stable, especially a democracy that relies on the will of the whole population. The conspirators saw Caesar as a threat to Rome’s institutions. To stop him they circumvented those institutions. Subsequently, they led to the dissolution of those same institutions. That’s what gives this play such a nagging effect on me. Whenever I hear Cassius seethe that if Caesar is not taken down, “worse days endure,” I hear an echo of current stump rhetoric. We can keep strong our institutions or we can allow ourselves to be whipped into passionate action. Cassius so moved a faction to take Caesar down, Antony so moved the public to run riot, and worse days endured.
March 29, 2012