by SOPHIE KERMAN
Julius Caesar is not theater for beginners. Of all of Shakespeare‘s plays, Caesar is one of the least eventful and yet the most cataclysmic. In Acts I-II, a charismatic leader becomes too big for his britches and is brutally murdered for it; Acts III and IV show us the aftermath of the killing on both a personal and national level. As in politics, we see a lot of reasoning, posturing and rationalization, and as in politics, a strong production of Caesar demands extreme degrees of commitment and oratorical skill. The Acting Company‘s collaboration with the Guthrie Theater has provided all the necessary theatrical talent for its latest production; many of the actors are recent graduates of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program, and all display the same passion for their craft that we see in the eyes of the most fervent political candidates. It is only because the acting is so convincing that the audience has a chance to question some of the broader political issues that Caesar evokes both through its challenging text and through the production’s particularly modern interpretation.
Shakespeare’s histories lend themselves easily to comparisons with contemporary politics, and director Rob Melrose has done a thorough job highlighting these connections. He has a strong eye for detail: from the well-tailored costumes by Candice Donnelly to the casually mannered way Casca (Kevin Orton) handles his smoothie cup on his way back from a rally, the production brings Caesar so completely into the present that you might just to hear expect the next GOP debate in iambic pentameter.
But, like an overzealous leader, Melrose occasionally takes the modern-day parallels a step too far. For instance, the set (designed by Neil Patel) is a paneled screen with video projections to set the scene. These projections, by Shawn Sagady, are most successful when they create a sense of depth and interior space; however, they also ask us to make some improbable comparisons, with video of demonstrators waving “Occupy Rome” signs, or posters of Caesar that are modeled on the now-iconic posters from the 2008 Obama campaign. Though interesting, these clips ultimately get in the way of our understanding of a play where there is no real populist uprising and where Caesar’s downfall comes, not from GOP pundits, but from his closest friends and advisers.
The casting choices of Bjorn DuPaty as Julius Caesar and Kaliswa Brewster as his wife Calpurnia are another instance of contemporary connections overstepping theatrical bounds. DuPaty plays Caesar with an understated authority that makes both his charisma and his hubris very believable, but both his and Brewster’s styling and mannerisms are clearly modeled on Barack and Michelle Obama. (Their outward physical resemblance to the President and First Lady is an unfortunate coincidence, as they could just as easily have been cast for their considerable talent as for their looks.) This blunt comparison fails to do justice to the actors’ potential to create stand-alone characters, to the many ways the Obamas do not mirror the Caesars, and indeed to the audience’s intelligence: would we really be unable to recognize our own society on stage without such an easy point of reference?
In fact, some of the more overt modern references distract from language that is already uncannily resonant with contemporary political rhetoric. Bathed up to the elbows in Caesar’s blood, the murderers latch onto buzzwords like peace, freedom, liberty and enfranchisement – buzzwords whose full irony is revealed as Roman society starts to crumble around their heads. The main players in the murder all have distinct and recognizable personalities on the 21st-century political stage. As Brutus, William Sturdivant is both completely sympathetic and (as such) utterly vile, rationalizing murder to himself and to the public in spin tactics that would make any press secretary blush. Sid Solomon is compelling as Cassius, the hawkish schemer, while Kevin Orton‘s blasé Casca provides some surprising comic relief. And Zachary Fine‘s Mark Antony is the perfect opportunist, proving himself to be neither a coward nor a flatterer, but rather an expert manipulator of both individuals and the citizens of Rome.
It is a tribute to the acting and the direction of this production that the events of 44 BC, imagined by Shakespeare in 1601, are still resonant in 2012. Because it is so textually rich, Caesar demands a lot of attention from its audience, and this attention is well-rewarded by the actors’ incisive character portraits. These portraits should be enough without reaching for one-to-one correspondences to real-life contemporary figures: in a political climate that resembles nothing more than theater, it is already too easy to recognize the ambition, double-speak and self-deception that all have a role on Julius Caesar‘s stage.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Presented by the Acting Company in conjunction with the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis, MN 55415. January 14-February 5, 2012. Tickets $29-39 on www.guthrietheater.org.