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Julius Caesar

Past and Present Tense

Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Potter Center, Jackson, Michigan
Saturday, July 15, 2017, B–105&106 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Janice L. Blixt

Last year when Michigan Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Janice L. Blixt planned for the company's 2017 season, she anticipated William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew would stir the pot of controversy, though she hoped her staging of a world-premiere translation of Anton Chekhov's "wickedly funny" The Seagull would create the season's biggest buzz. As for the repertory's third title, at most the U.S. presidential election, which woud be more than six months in the past, might give context to "Shakespeare's great political tragedy," Julius Caesar.

Caesar in bloodied toga and robe stands next to his dropped knife as Brutus, also in a toga and robe, stands with knife pointing toward Caesar. In the e background are the red-draped walls and SPQR posters
The most powerfully moving Caesar assassination I've ever seen: Caesar (Lee Palmer, left), awaits a final knife thrust from Brutus (Robert Kauzlaric) in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Photo by Melissa Szymke Adams, Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

This was before Donald Trump, who won that election, was depicted as Caesar by The Public Theater in its Free Shakespeare in the Park production this summer in New York. "Throughout rehearsals I've been fielding questions from media and patrons about the show we are presenting," Blixt writes. "The Festival has been trolled quite a bit on Facebook, Twitter, and our website, hectored by individuals from all points on the political spectrum demanding we produce a show geared toward their views." Although Blixt gives her production a modern setting—using some clever staging optics in doing so—she does not invoke current partisanship politics or party iconography with the play.

Representing Caesar as Trump to highlight the modern relevance of Shakespeare's play is nothing new; the play has been so relevant the past couple of centuries that many U.S. presidents and other world leaders have been used in portraying Caesar, too. Shakespeare's text is so obviously relevant in these particularly factious times that it hits home whether it's set in modern Africa, a women's prison, colonial America, modern Rome or, yes, ancient Rome. However it's set, the relevance emerges via Shakespeare's dramatic methodology in creating the environment of oppression that comes with encroaching tyranny and the palpable sense of internal and social chaos that comes in the wake of a coup. In this Michigan Shakespeare Festival production, however, Blixt's cuts to the text and streamlining the play's personnel skim off the psychological cream of Shakespeare's political thriller.

Gone is Act I, Scene 1, in which the tribunes Murellus and Flavius upbraid the commoners for celebrating Caesar's triumphant homecoming. The scene establishes the fickle nature of the body politic and launches a thematic river of ever-intensifying political rhetoric. I grant, the scene opens with perhaps Shakespeare's lamest pun in the entire canon (the cobbler as a mender of bad soles, a joke drawn out for 15 lines), but as with the Porter scene in the middle of Macbeth, the comedy that starts Julius Caesar serves as a psychological feint. It instills an all-is-great vibe among the scene's participants even as despotic danger is tightening its grip on their environment, especially for the tribunes who, after "disrobing" the streets of Caesar's ceremonies, are "put to silence," a reference that Blixt keeps in the next scene though she strips its context here.

This production instead opens with toga-wearing Caesar (Lee Palmer) and senators in formal ceremonial procession interrupted by the Soothsayer's Ides of March warning. Just 25 lines in, Brutus (Robert Kauzlaric) and Cassius (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) are left alone on stage to discuss in convoluted verbal construction the threat to Rome of a Caesar dictatorship and a possible remedy. The convoluted nature of the dialogue here is due to Cassius and Brutus cautiously probing each other's political leanings, but with the purposefully puzzling fun of the first scene gone and, in this scene, no real feel of the danger current or to come, we begin sinking into the kind of word-heavy, personality-lacking enterprise we hated reading in high school.

Shawn Pfautsch brings a welcome comic panache to the part of the cynical Casca when he joins the conversation, but he also brings on something equally as important: a mobile phone. Blixt envisions the play as if the Roman Republic of ancient times were in place today. Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood's set of red drapes, pillars, and a ceremonial platform prominently features "SPQR" signage, a Latin abbreviation for "Senators and People of Rome" referring to the Roman Republic but still used as the modern city's official emblem. The hung-over Antony (David Blixt) arrives at Caesar's house on the morning of the assassination carrying a Starbucks cup and wearing sunglasses and iPhone ear buds. Antony and Octavius (Ian Geers) do their "pricking" on iPads. In the war scenes, the soldiers are dressed in modern uniforms and use firearms in addition to knives (the latter for killing themselves).

Ritual nevertheless is important and, just as judges wear robes when conducting official business (and periwigs in the United Kingdom and Australia), these senators don togas when they are in formal settings. Otherwise they wear fashionably modern clothes designed by Melanie Schuessler Bond, such as Casca in a hooded suit jacket and Cassius wearing white jeans, an unbuttoned white shirt, and unbuttoned red and gray vest as he roams Rome during the storm (but he buttons up shirt and vest when he visits Brutus's home with the other conspirators).

Saunders' Cassius is an irritable man who simply despises Caesar, and he has reason. When Caesar tells Antony that "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look: he thinks too much: such men are dangerous," Cassius is in easy earshot, listening and steaming as Caesar continues gossiping about him. Palmer's Caesar knows what he's doing with his off-the-record-but-meant-to-be-heard slander. Meanwhile, Kauzlaric's Brutus is all about honor. Descended from the man who drove the abusive Tarquin monarchy from Rome and established the Republic, Kauzlaric's Brutus conjoins tradition with honor, a quality on which Cassius works him toward joining the conspiracy but one that in the end undoes him quite, not only by Antony's political maneuvering in the aftermath of the assassination but also when trying to wage war "with honor." However, Janice Blixt cuts out Portia (Risha Tenae) cutting herself in her thigh, the one act in this play that out-honors Brutus.

Palmer's Caesar displays an outsized ego and relentless narcissism, but there is legitimate fire in his bearing and genuine bonhomie toward the lords he likes (such as Antony) or respects (Brutus). His finest moment comes in the assassination itself. After the first round of stabs, Caesar manages to wield his own knife and fend off everybody until he turns and sees Brutus with knife poised to strike. "Et tu Brute?" Caesar says. "Then fall Caesar." He drops his knife and, with some physical effort, stands fully erect, coming to a statue-like pose of authority as he awaits Brutus's thrust. It comes, Caesar falls, and Casca shoots a picture of the dead Caesar with his phone as the rest of the conspirators shout "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!"

The next significant textual cut is Antony's embassy to the conspirators. I will be accused of quibbling, arguing why the embassy should be retained when Antony himself arrives shortly after. I answer with simple experience: I've now seen a dozen stage productions of this play, and those that keep the full sequence of Antony's approach to the conspirators create the greatest tension and provide the keenest insights into Antony's tactical skills, starting with the words the ambassador uses. Dramatically, this also creates psychological tension for the audience who knows that the conspirators are divided on whether Antony should be killed; we're given a few moments to consider this before the moment of truth arrives in the person of Antony himself.

Immediately, he puts the conspirators' resolve to the test, demanding that if he is marked for death they should kill him now (in this production, Casca and Cassius, behind Antony, gesture to each other to prepare to do just that, but Brutus stops them). Then, with at least a temporary reprieve, Antony begins walking the tightrope of a dangerous con game, not only aiming to revenge Caesar but to wrest power from Brutus and Cassius while seeming to ally with them. The nuances in Shakespeare's construction are lost in David Blixt's playing Antony in this scene with hyped displays of passion. He crescendos his scene-ending soliloquy with a scream of "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!" It's dramatic, but not quite as chilling as an Antony, based on the deft maneuvering the text implies, speaking this line with the quiet, steel-eyed resolve of an experienced warrior who has set an ambush.

The Blixts, director Janice and David as Antony, put the production on more solid footing in the second half beginning with Caesar's funeral. Janice Blixt places the rabble around the theater audience, where they sometimes make nontextual interjections. "He was my friend," Antony says of Caesar; "Good for you" one of the rabble says. David Blixt, an actor being an actor in this scene, plays to his theater audience in the same way Antony is playing to his Roman audience. "Brutus is an honorable man," Antony says, clapping to inspire fervent applause among the rabble. The second time he calls Brutus an honorable man, the crowd applauds again. The third time, only some clap. The fourth and fifth times, just one claps, both coming from the same direction behind us. The sixth "honorable man" reference inspires no clapping at all. By then, with Blixt's Antony staging a brilliant show of grief while dramatically delaying the reading of Caesar's will, the rabble is urging him on. Thus, he need not urge them on to mutiny, gaining political cover by superficially suggesting they stay calm, then remaining quiet and still as the crowd unleashes "mischief" that takes "what course thou wilt."

It's not Shakespeare's course, though. Janice Blixt, in a preshow presentation about Julius Caesar, notes the popularity in Elizabethan England of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, Shakespeare's source for Julius Caesar. Most of his audience not only would know every detail and every character in the story but expect to see them presented, much as would fans of Game of Thrones watching the television series (or fans of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games books watching those films). Most modern audiences haven't a clue who Publius, Popilus, Lucius, Lucilius, Strato, Cato, Clitus, and Varrus are. So, Blixt makes the theatrical decision to streamline the characters, combining many into single roles.

In some cases, this works out well enough, such as Brutus's page Lucius (Lauren Grace Thompson, regendered as Luca) merging in the roles of Lucilius (Brutus's second-in-command in the army) and Cato (the servant who helps Brutus in his suicide). Meanwhile, the conspirators themselves take on the roles of various members of Brutus's and Cassius's armies so that Casca and Metellus (Janet Haley) survive the postassassination purge. Streamlining Plutarch's history so that the conspirators remain intact all the way to the Battle of Philippi might stave off audience confusion, but the play loses the sense of how desperately isolated Brutus and Cassius become (which feeds their despair and testiness) in the wake of a conspiracy the one instigated and the other led. As each of the conspirators dies in battle, Blixt uses the theatrical trope of having great Caesar's ghost present for their individual demise. "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords in our own proper entrails," Brutus says, a line that Blixt takes literally.

Only one conspirator dies in the immediate aftermath of Antony's oration in this production, and that is Cinna—no, not Cinna the poet. Blixt has combined the two Cinnas so that the rabble actually lights on the conspirator; she drops the poet altogether. This diffuses Shakespeare's frightening scene of an incensed crowd literally tearing to pieces someone based on mistaken identity. Not many of us would actually be a Cinna the conspirator, but any one of us could be a Cinna the poet encountering a maddened mob. In fact, we see similar incidents happening today on social media. Ironically, MSF played the role of Cinna the poet this summer, as did many other Shakespeare theater companies around the country hectored by Trump fans confusing them for the Public Theater in New York.

This production has much going for it, starting with Janice Blixt's effective timeless setting and including the most powerfully moving Caesar assassination I've ever seen, Antony's deliciously entertaining funeral oration, and Kauzlaric's Brutus and Saunders' Cassius, in contrast to the desultory tone of their first-scene conversation, engaging in an electric argument in the war scene, their hot emotions generating cliff-edge tension. But by the time Cato, aka Lucilius, aka Luca/Lucious, helps Brutus kill himself, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has been gutted of its timeless tension.

Certainly, an audience unfamiliar with this play might not know what's missing. However, such cuts and streamlining deprive that audience of the full potential of Shakespeare's ability to make us feel just how dangerous Rome becomes—first under Caesar, then in the chaos that follows the coup, and finally under the subsequent government. This play's relevancy, in any setting, is more than in its rhetorical volume and political volubility, for while it may be a story about people, it's a play about society's psychosis.

Eric Minton
August 2, 2017

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