Julius Caesar, Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City UT, Tuesday 18th October 2016
Reviewed by Harriet Archer
‘Julius Caesar’ can feel like a misnomer for a play whose eponymous figure is usually murdered just before the interval, and whose moral vision is as slippery as its rhetoric. Dramatizing the conspiracy by Brutus and Cassius to overthrow a monarchical leader on the brink of tyranny, the ensuing civil war, and the imminent ascent of Octavius to new imperial heights, the play itself enacts a conflict between a single focal character’s story and ensemble action. Caesar’s physical presence dominated the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s interpretation, however, in the sharp-suited person of Paul Michael Sandberg and a matching statue which loomed over the intimate studio space. By no means a tragic hero, he nevertheless defied the top-heavy weighting of the plot by returning from beyond the grave – twice, in director Joseph Hanreddy’s production. Brutus’s vision of Caesar’s ghost saw the curtain which covered Caesar’s statue after intermission dramatically pulled back, while Sandberg returned after Caesar’s death to play Strato, momentously unmasked by removing his headgear to act as accomplice to Brutus’s death, and playing up to the predictable but undeniable reciprocity in his final lines, ‘Caesar, now be still.| I killed not thee with half so good a will’. Brusque and unsympathetic, relying more on spin than charisma, Sandberg’s Caesar didn’t much deserve Brutus’s loyalty, such that Brutus’s ideals, tortuous decision to join Cassius and his co-conspirators in Caesar’s assassination, and subsequent emotional torment, felt out of place in an environment of cynical PR. Even Caesar’s strangulated ‘Et tu, Brute?’ fell somewhere between pathetic and performative. Despite Mark Antony’s sarcastic delivery, then, Jeffrey Cummings’s Brutus really is an honorable man. He betrays his friendship with Caesar unwillingly, for the sake of deeply felt ideological convictions; more devastating in this rendering is the betrayal of these convictions by political reality.
The modern-dress performance presented a disjointed aesthetic which felt appropriate to the disorientating movement of the plot. Costume designer Rachel Laritz had casually dressed revelers in furry ears and sunglasses open the play, swigging from bottles of what looked like brown ale – Marullus’s suspicious question to the carpenter, ‘What dost thou with thy best apparel on?’ came across as all the more tone-deaf to the public mood. Jason Lajka’s patterned paving cleverly gestured to both Roman mosaic and a run-down municipal milieu. Opposite the statue of Caesar some shabby scaffolding seemed to represent the back of a campaign podium – sparse benches, wheeled metal frames and industrial lighting throughout the play clashed with the corporate smartness of the central characters to reinforce the sense of being behind-the-scenes. Likewise Calpurnia (Rosie Ward) and Portia (Melissa Graves) in nightie and dressing gown contrasted with their husbands’ business attire. (The senators’ mismatched jackets and trousers, Caesar’s suit and open-necked shirt, Karen Thorla as a brisk, secretarial Publius, and the upstart Antony’s smart jeans could have alluded to the sartorial semiotics of academia – Casca (Andrew May) wrestled irritably with a ceremonial robe worn over his normal clothes, eventually ditching it in an on-stage trash can.)
Cassius (Rex Young) reeled giddily, shirt hanging open, through the storms which presage Caesar’s death, directing an old-fashioned egomaniacal conspiracy. Really snakelike, though, was Mark Antony (Sam Ashdown), whose rhetorical manipulation of the crowd over Caesar’s body was reconfigured by the unexpected setting of his confab with Octavius (Fred Geyer). Laptop open on a bare table, their hit-list of traitors was projected onto the far wall of the studio space, which brought a jarring new shade of back-room manipulation to their relationship, and a sinister digital dimension to the performance’s evocation of a government overthrown. Rather than a feat of affective conversion, Antony’s turning the crowd came across as opportunist, and Octavius’s evident succession as a cynical coup. The play’s layering of superstition and thuggery with surgical realpolitik, and the conflicting languages of disparate generations and social groups, curdled effectively in the production’s visual disjuncture.
By virtue, I think, of their minimalism, both Caesar’s death and Brutus and Cassius’s reconciliation (Act 4 Scene 2) were particularly visceral, although the treatment of Portia’s suicide struggled with the text’s sparseness and fell flat. While some of the technical choices felt forced – the voice of Caesar’s ghost boomed over the PA system to flashing green and purple lights, disrupting the eerie atmosphere with pantomime melodrama – the pervasive mundanity of the costume and set design worked well to heighten the suggestion of corrupt corporate interests. The capture and presumed murder of Cinna the poet was therefore as unsettling as it should have been, a microcosm of misjudged mass violence driven by specious demagogic rhetoric, while the army fatigues and all too realistic hardware and soundscapes of the battle scenes struck a particularly resonant chord in a week when Mosul and Aleppo were prominent in news media. In all, the production’s gestures towards the contemporary, while unobtrusive, were genuinely chilling. Juxtaposing the grubbily banal with a terrifying military escalation, orchestrated from behind a computer screen, this Julius Caesar brought home the text’s pertinence to our own post-truth political theatre.