WASHINGTON, November 7, 2014 – In art as well as politics, timing is everything. While the Folger Theatre’s new production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” opened not on the Ides of March in ancient Rome but on November 2 in Washington, D.C., the parallels between ancient and modern history could not have been more clear.
“Julius Caesar” is a play that begins with the triumph and near-coronation of a legendary Roman general but ends with his assassination and the onset of a civil war leaving both Rome’s government and its future direction in serious doubt.
With a sense of timing that could not have been coincidental, the Folger’s production of this play opened just two days prior to our own mid-term election sweepstakes on November 4. During the lead-in to that event, American voters were forced to take a cold, hard look at how their country is being governed.
But as of Wednesday morning’s results, while battle lines were more clearly drawn, the outcome of our own competing governing philosophies likewise remains in doubt.
As in all personal, political and ideological battles, those that take place in Shakespeare’s play tend to support, at least in part, the notion that the personal is political. As the play opens, a victorious Caesar has indeed crossed the Rubicon against the government’s wishes, re-entering Rome in triumph and to great public acclaim.
The Roman Senate is fearful that Caesar will depose them and their early version of democracy, replacing both with an autocracy driven by a cult of personality. It was a valid fear. But opposition to Caesar was also driven by pettier issues of power, property, personality and political perks, not to mention envy and jealousy.
The solution for some was simply to finesse the issue by murdering Caesar, a brutal task they accomplish in short order. Unfortunately, Rome, the Senate, and the conspirators’ and the nobles’ lives are put in serious jeopardy and the immutable law of unintended consequences takes hold.
The tale of Caesar’s decline and fall is even today well-known. But Shakespeare’s treatment of this chain of events is as hard-hitting and realistic as it is exquisitely subtle, demonstrating the playwright’s keen insights into human nature.
Director Robert Richmond and set designer Tony Cisek go for the universals here. Aided considerably by Jim Hunter’s spooky but effective lighting scheme, the pair have created a highly original and absolutely riveting production that’s viscerally exciting, brilliantly intellectual and hauntingly staged in a way that perfectly blends the actions, the sensations, and the drama’s cynical moral and personal core.
Upon entering the intimate Folger Theatre, the audience finds itself almost immediately immersed in a kind of time tunnel. The immense, elaborate single set resembles a gray, gloomy and ghostly imperial catacomb, illuminated only by a single flame, which is guarded by an anonymous, mysterious and lonely sentinel.
Underscoring the fearfulness of this foreboding vision is a constant, never-ending, low-level rumble of sound, combining the subwoofer sensations of a distant thunderstorm and a low-level earthquake—phenomena more felt than heard.
It’s within this tomb-like setting—which, taken as a whole, resembles one of the colder circles of Dante’s hell—that the entire play unfolds. Together, the sensations, the space, and the sound are eerily effective in conveying the director’s sense of timelessness and inevitability.
Bringing this spooky setting to life, both the director and the cast brilliantly create a kind of doppelgänger effect for the drama’s major inhabitants. Each is effectively a creature of his or her times and customs. Yet each is also articulated in such a way that none of these historical figures would seem uncomfortable or out-of-place in post-November 4 Washington, D.C.
While “Julius Caesar” is the marquee figure in this play, Shakespeare doesn’t keep him around very long before he’s brutally assassinated. For that reason, any actor portraying him on stage needs to quickly establish his personality and type, for it’s in his name—or against it—that the rest of the action unfolds.
Michael Sharon gives an interesting spin to Caesar, a part that’s often portrayed either woodenly or matter-of-factly. His Caesar is not a cipher. He is, as the historical Caesar was, an imperious yet inspiring general, a master of men and situations, and an imposing, heroic figure.
True he has his weaknesses, being subject to occasional “fits” (likely epilepsy). But he is the kind of leader that a people can long for after long periods of war or depression, and as we meet him, he is beginning to warm up to this role, perhaps as a way of extending his triumph and his authority.
In short, he is beginning to become a politician, and an effective one.
But Caesar’s increasing lust for power brings out a fatal weakness common to many politicians: he is susceptible to flattery despite his protests to the contrary.
Michael Sharon is highly successful in bringing out these opposing elements in Caesar’s character. Early in the play, his judgments, orders, and sweeping commands can send his minions cowering in fear. But at other times—particularly after he’s just promised Calpurnia (Deidra LaWan Starnes), his wife, that he’ll heed the mysterious Soothsayer (Nafeesa Monroe) and stay with her on the Ides of March—he’s highly susceptible to flattery.
This flaw, common to nearly all politicians at some point, is his undoing, as he is effectively complimented and then cajoled by the co-conspirator Casca (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), to forget all the warnings and head for the Senate where his eventual murder has already been set in motion.
Sharon effectively plays all the angles here with great finality. As a result, while his character, save for his “ghost,” disappears for the rest of the play after his murder, the various memories of Caesar continue to haunt everything that follows.
Yet for all intents and purposes, Marcus Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) is the real tragic hero of this play. Caesar’s closest friend, one of his chief military commanders, and a member of the Roman nobility himself, Brutus is brave and loyal almost to a fault when we first glimpse him.
But Brutus, too, is susceptible to flattery and also harbors doubts as to his Commander-in-Chief’s ultimate intentions. Caius Cassius, another key figure, cannily notes that Brutus is troubled and, by means of both flattery and an appeal in favor of continuing senatorial democracy, sways him to a different view of Caesar—one that requires the general’s death.
Cochrane’s Brutus thus shares Caesar’s key characteristics: his imperiousness, his loyalty, but also his moments of doubt. Yet it’s that old Greek nemesis, hubris, that does him in. Caesar begins to imagine himself a god. Brutus, on the other hand, visualizes himself as Rome’s greatest freedom fighter. Cochrane’s almost metaphysical grasp of his character’s warring opposites adds considerable bite and complexity to the proceedings.
As Cassius, Louis Butelli proves to be a skilled interpreter of the baser elements of human nature, namely anger, jealousy and envy. Butelli—who does indeed have that lean and hungry look in this production—makes an indelible initial impression as a seething, malevolent figure.
He cleverly conceals both his driving hatred of Caesar and his contempt for Brutus’ finer intellect with alternately soothing and slashing outbursts of logic and reason. But it’s all a sham.
Like Iago, who opposes Othello, all Cassius really wants is for Caesar to be dead. So he’ll do whatever it takes to make this happen.
Butelli understands that Cassius himself is not an inspirational figure. For that reason, he needs to gull the unimpeachable Brutus into serving as the figurehead of his conspiracy to bring the rest of the conspirators into the fold.
A master manipulator, Butelli’s Cassius is the ultimate community organizer, and his portrayal of this character provides this production with considerable drive and energy.
Somewhat invisible early in the play, Mark Antony (Maurice Jones) becomes the driving force in its second half. Jones portrays him as a canny military man, capable of blending in with the scenery when necessary, but also retaining a burning desire for victory and power that tends to be underestimated.
Indeed, Cassius fears his potential, and rightly so. But the arguably nobler Brutus commits the fatal mistake of allowing Antony to perform the public funeral oration for Caesar. After flattering the co-conspirators, again an element so prominent in this play, Antony famously turns the tables on them by firing up the Roman mobs to oppose them.
Antony’s speech is perhaps the most famous and most remembered element of this play. Jones’ interpretation is remarkable in its crispness, incisiveness and rhetorical cynicism. Appropriately, it’s Antony’s speech, and Jones’ stirring delivery of it, that catapults him into becoming the inspirational hero of the play’s second half.
Yet, Antony, too, is not entirely pure of heart. Like Caesar and the co-conspirators, he’s interested in gaining power, too, and is not beneath obsequiousness and manipulation to get himself back into the game once Caesar’s gone while saving his own life in the process.
This becomes obvious in his nasty and condescending behavior toward the two men—Octavius (JaBen Early) and the wealthy but inept Lepidus (Robbie Gay)—who join him, albeit temporarily, to form Rome’s first “Triumvirate” of post-assassination leaders.
Jones is particularly effective in bringing out this vicious and somewhat unexpected part of Antony’s character. In so doing, he brings the elements of this production full circle, perhaps fulfilling the director’s almost despairing vision of politics as another form of war.
As the final lines of the drama are spoken, we are left with the sense that none of its characters are selfless or heroic at all, just power-hungry war lords who insincerely conceal their lust for dominance with inspirational but hollow speeches and words.
Kudos and quibbles
The Folger’s new “Julius Caesar” is a moving, often exciting and nearly always brilliant and effective meditation on history, past and present. Opening night was as close to flawless as you’ll get, although we did have a few quibbles with the performance we attended.
While Anthony Cochrane’s portrayal of Brutus was as nuanced and complex as they come, portions of his dialogue, whether due to accent or projection, were inaudible where we were seated, toward the back of the main (orchestra) seating area.
Slightly unnerving here was the fact that at least one set of roles—those of conspirators Casca and Messala—were played by one actor, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.
We had no problem with either portrayal, as both were nicely done. But at least initially, when Messala showed up in this production’s second stanza, we were a bit confused. A more obvious visual, like a significant costume change, might have helped.
Mariah Hale’s costuming was okay but not always original in our view. Most of the costumes continued current traditions by eschewing all the official Roman stuff (like togas), substituting, for the men at least, monochromatic, leathery outfits that looked a bit like what barbarians might wear.
Later on, during the battle scenes, nameless soldiers entered and existed the stage with rifles drawn and with World War I-style gas masks in place.
Yes, this is a production that seems to take place in a time-tunnel, and the gas masks do provide a unifying element between ancient and modern warfare (including Saddam’s gas attacks on the Kurds and Assad’s similar attacks on his fellow Syrians). But perhaps, in the end, the symbolism is a bit heavy handed.
Finally, there’s the matter of soundmeister Eric Shimelonis’ nearly incessant background rumbles which commenced the moment the theater doors were thrown open and persisted throughout much of the performance.
On the plus side, the rumbling succeeded in producing a palpable sense of fear and foreboding. But like many such devices, perhaps in this case, the audience was getting a little too much of a good thing.
Our quibbles are minor, however. In the main, the Folger’s “Julius Caesar” is one of the best productions of a Shakespeare tragedy we’ve seen in quite some time.
With noted exceptions, the dialogue is easy to understand, and it’s delivered with great wisdom and subtlety by a first-rate ensemble cast. The staging and direction are brilliantly evocative and genuinely haunting as well. And the pacing of the production creates a sense of emotion and inevitability that can keep you on the edge of your seat even if you’re very familiar with the play.
In particular, this production should end up with great appeal for sometimes reluctant teens, who too often encounter Shakespeare only in a lifeless and hard-to-read text.
This energetic and almost mythic production leaps off the stage and pulls the audience into the action, demonstrating to young people and Shakespeare fans alike that the bard was not only a poet and a philosopher, but a brilliant entertainer as well.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
The Folger Theatre’s new production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” continues through December 7, 2014 at the company’s home in the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Tickets and information: Tickets range from $40-75. For tickets and information, visit www.folger.edu/theatre. Or call the box office at 202-544-7077.