A Caesar Who Rules a Dream State
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Drew University, Madison, N.J.
Saturday, March 8, 2014, C-101&102, center orchestra
Directed by Anthony Cochrane
Octavius (Felix Mayes) holds up the crown as the rest of the Shakespeare LIVE! touring troupe playing Roman soldiers line up behind him (from left, Isabelle Russo, Liz Daingerfield, Alex Vlahov, Jonathan Minton, Michael Striano, Alison Wien, and Travis Johnson), in Julius Caesar at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Photo by Brian B. Crowe, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
Julius Caesar "is superstitious grown of late," says Cassius. With reason: Caesar is having bad dreams. This production opens with people washing their hands in blood and laughing as Caesar watches in growing alarm. Meanwhile, a man in sunglasses walks to the front of the stage and pulls a gold, laurel wreath out from his coat. This turns out to be the Soothsayer, and Caesar's dream suddenly turns into a waking vision: "Caesar," shouts the Soothsayer. "Beware the Ides of March." Caesar takes this in, then laughs, almost heartily. "He is a dreamer. Let us leave him."
A dream state is the visual motif of this hour-long, eight-actor school tour production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar directed by Anthony Cochrane. Geared toward older students and striving for a cool aesthete, this imagery-heavy, modern-dress production combines Brechtian elements with film noir to create more of a psychological thriller than political thriller.
It is paired with a fantastical Midsummer Night's Dream in The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's Shakespeare LIVE! 2014 school tour. Meshing the look and performance styles of a silent-era movie, Alice in Wonderland, and a Seussian circus, the troupe's presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is both wondrously Shakespearean and theatrically magical, just the kind of eye and mind candy to make students K through 12 dig The Bard and desire more theater. Seeing the two productions back-to-back during the annual Stage Festival, a statewide program by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance aimed at introducing families to the theater arts, deepens appreciation for the talent of this troupe and its challenge in touring these productions to grade, middle, and high schools around New Jersey and into neighboring states.
Its Caesar is as serious as its Dream is silly. Yet, the Caesar has a more authentic dream-like quality to it. Brian B. Crowe's set design features a fractured marble wall as the backdrop and uses ladders for a variety of props: monuments, hallways, doorways, hills, and pulpits. The cast wears dark-hued business suits with single-color neckties. As Cassius and Brutus discuss Caesar's growing ambition, the rest of the cast stand in a line at the back, facing the wall; each time the crown is offered Caesar off stage, per the script, in this production the lineup turns around, applauding and cheering as Caesar revolves, waving. As Brutus soliloquizes in his garden over his dilemma of whether to join in the plot to kill Caesar, the other conspirators are perched on the ladders and faux marble blocks behind black umbrellas. They emerge as each is introduced. Caesar's assassination is played out on a large red sheet that becomes the pool of his blood that the assassins bathe their hands with. Later, that sheet serves as a backdrop to Brutus's tent and becomes the body of Caesar's ghost.
This dream-like quality partially makes up for the fact that so much pertinent matter is excised from the play to get it down to a standard school assembly playing time. In particular, the play's cut sacrifices the political nuances of Shakespeare's original, so that the actors must find their characters' psychological footing instead. Particularly poignant in this respect are the women. Liz Daingerfield as Portia (she also plays Metellus Cimber and Lepidus) is devoted to her husband, Brutus, and fully aware of his status in Rome, and she implores him to share his troubles with her so that she can in some way—emotionally, physically, intellectually—ease his burden. Alison Wien as Calpurnia (she also plays Titinius) is, as well, devoted to her husband, Caesar, but she is more selfish, desiring him to stay home because she deeply fears what may befall him. With woman's intuition, she knows her interpretation of her dream is more accurate than that of the smiling, fawning Decius Brutus (Felix Mayes, who also plays the Soothsayer and Octavius). But, of course, Caesar responds more willingly to fawning than warning, to flattering smiles than loving concern.
Especially this Caesar. Jonathan Minton (my son, who also plays Messala) is an imperious Caesar. The play cut erases some of the original script's dimensions of Caesar's ego, so Minton pretty much comes off as an egotistical jerk. Interestingly, it is in the extra-textual dream passages that Minton finds the role's multidimensional aspects: His Caesar seems deeply disturbed by his own paranoid visions, suggesting that a bout of self-uncertainty lies at the root of his bravado demeanor. But that public demeanor, even to his wife, gives the conspirators cause for concern that Caesar will become a despotic dictator if he is crowned; but it's also the case that they might simply have grown tired of his snarkiness.
That seems to be the case for Cassius, played by Travis Johnson as an ambitious man in his own right. Caesar by his very personality and the position he has achieved galls this Cassius, and whether the latter seeks personal satisfaction or truly considers it a matter of patriotism, he is determined to have Caesar killed. He even threatens Casca (played as a man of intrigue by Isabelle Russo, who also plays the boy, Lucius) on the mere suspicion that Casca might harbor thoughts of being a "fleering tell-tale."
Alex Vlahov, on the other hand, plays Brutus as a deeply conflicted soul, but yet there is an outsized ego of his own that plays out as patriotic duty and honor. He is merely polite with Cassius in their opening scene together, but in the tents of Sardis his apparent dislike for his fellow conspirator erupts. This is a Brutus almost willing to take Cassius up on his offer to kill him (a point at which Johnson's Cassius decides to be a bit more gentle).
Marc Antony (Michael Striano, who also plays Cicero) can barely gain a foothold among these egomaniacs. Alone among the Romans, he seems to be absent any outsized ego, and it is more his devotion to Caesar, before and after his mentor's assassination, that drives him. Thus, as soon as he takes command of Rome, Antony already finds himself in the shadow of Octavius, played by Mayes with a cocky imperial attitude that, as Caesar's adopted son, he seems to have inherited from his dad.
The production's final scene thematically utilizes the doubling of parts that is a practical reality for such a touring troupe. As Antony eulogizes the death of Brutus, Mayes' Octavius reveals a smirking aspect and puts on the sunglasses he wears when the actor plays the Soothsayer in the first scene. "According to his virtue let us use him with all respect and rites of burial," Octavius says, and in Mayes' delivery, it's obvious he doesn't think much of Brutus's "virtue." "Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie," his speech continues, and Mayes gives this line the clear implication that his stature relative to Antony's is the superior one. Repeating the production's opening scene, he pulls out the gold laurel wreath, hands it to Caesar, but then sits in a chair as in state as Caesar behind him places the crown upon the young man's head.
As played, this passage is rife with symbolic meaning. Even if the Soothsayer and Octavius are not one and the same, at the least one interpretation of the Soothsayer's vision ultimately comes to fruition, that Caesar can conquer all except his own destiny. The Soothsayer also could be seen as the harbinger of Octavius's desire, or perhaps Caesar's. It's as if one or the other Caesar, Julius or Octavius—or both—manipulated the whole plot.
The final visual image certainly brings the psychological thriller that is this production's approach to a pinpoint landing on the play's political themes. As Rome awakes from the nightmare brought on by honorable Brutus and hungry Cassius, a Caesar is, in fact, emperor.
March 14, 2014