As students and aficionados of The Bard will confirm, William Shakespeare never shied away from political themes in his many works. Some of his plays, however, were more overtly politically than others— and 1599’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a prime example. The play’s undisguised main theme is power— with power’s close friends being ambition and pride. In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential race, those co-dependent themes couldn’t be more relevant as we enter 2017. In fact, the similarities between Shakespeare’s vision of ancient Rome and our not-so United States of America during the election season show to be downright eerie: Ambition becomes blinding, loyalties shift faster than the economic outlook, pride morphs into vanity and arrogance, and the art of influencing people can quickly degrade into manipulation. (Is this starting to sound timely yet?)
Shakespeare’s epic tragedy is getting a reboot courtesy of the Orange County, California-based bS Theatre Company. Reworked as simply Caesar and directed by Branden Roberts, the version eschews the sandals, togas, and laurel leaf headpieces for modern clothing, with the play’s two complex protagonists Julius Caesar (Christopher Martin, who also plays Caesar’s ghost...) and Brutus (David Cromer) more formally dressed than the other male characters— complete with ties. The original dialogue remains intact, however, and although the author’s centuries-old English may seem quaint and verbally extravagant today (“The deep of night is crept upon our talk...”), both the story and the innate human emotions of the characters have aged well. Even “Shakespeare virgins” can feel the tense marital drama when Portia (Sarah Roberts) confronts her husband Brutus about his secretive behavior, for example. The same is true when we watch and listen to the male characters discuss politics. References to the Roman gods aside, it ultimately just seems like day-to-day (at the risk of using a loaded term...) “locker room talk”. Of course, not all “locker room talk” involves plotting a murder. Brutus and his like-minded peers like the eager-to-please Casca (Johnny Lockhart) declare their love and respect for Caesar, but feel they must kill him for the sake of Roman Republic. The famous stabbing of the title character, and the immortal line “”Et tu, Brute?” provides the first of several climaxes in the play.
When it comes to the characters of Julius Caesar and Brutus, the debate over who is the “hero” and “antihero”, or who is “right” or “wrong”, or who is the “better” man in the play have been debated for centuries. Intentionally or not, the actors playing Julius and Brutus in Caesar take an interesting twist on their real life-turned-fictional figures, which is destined to provoke even further discussion. Despite the famed arrogance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar throughout literary history (arrogant enough to ignore the famous warning “Beware the ides of March...”), Martin plays him as somewhat humbled and world weary— not the imperious, aspiring monarch and possibly dangerous ruler that his “best friend” Brutus wants the masses to believe. In contrast, Brutus (who, it’s been noted, has about four times as many lines as Caesar in the play) is played by Cromer as unflappably cerebral and cocksure, making it less likely that we believe that “the noblest of Romans” had such noble intentions during his oft-debated, famous act of disloyalty. Freeman Land expertly plays Cassius as intensely charming and charismatic— and, dare we say, almost likeable. Yet, it’s just these characteristics that make him able to manipulate his already conflicted brother-in-law Brutus. In a gender-bending twist, Mark Anthony is played by a female actor (Andy Mallett), and even the play’s pronouns are changed to accommodate the change. Mallett, incidentally, is confident and passionate in that role; the audience is seduced by her character’s mix of perceived sympathy and strength. Of course, many analysts have declared Mark Antony to be “the ultimate politician”, which can be taken several ways. I don’t think I’d be giving too much away by revealing that the play concludes with the ascendancy of Mark Antony and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (Kyle Cohen); after all, that info can be found in any history book. However, Caesar the play promises a lot more drama before we are allowed to reach that conclusion.
This vision of Shakespeare’s story takes some liberties with the original script. Some of the secondary characters have been excised or have had their lines given to another character. In addition, some ancillary scenes have been left out for the sake of running time (The original Julius Caesar is, after all, five Acts long and had a great number of secondary characters.). This may unnerve some Shakespeare purists. There are some interesting creative touches, such as musical adornments, that we wish could have been fine-tuned and utilized a bit more. But must importantly, the attractive and youthful cast of seven is excellent— with Cromer, Mallett, and Land being particular standouts. Overall, this renegade version of one of The Bard of Avon’s most enduring plays will be appreciated by Romans, countrymen, and lovers alike.
bS Theatre Company’s Caesar continues throughout December in various locations in Orange County. For dates and locations, visit www.BS-theatre.squarespace.com.