Friday, September 30, 2011

Play: Julia Caesar

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Amanda Dehnert, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, through November 6.

So, back to the Bard. And that makes it a return to the New Theater at the OSF in Ashland. This time out, the theater has been reconfigured into the truly theater-in-the-round that showed off both venue and the performance better. Adding back one side of audience removed much of the problematic blocking experienced earlier in Ghost Light and replaced it with a bare bones, fully voiced, well acted style.

You know the play, or rather you think you know the play. Caesar applies for the gig of "Emperor" and gets offed after delivering the "et tu, Brute" line, and then the conspirators meet a bad end. But the tragedy of Julius Caesar is really the tragedy of Brutus. Caesar, like Henry IV, does not survive his own play, though this presentation keeps the leader onstage (Caesar appears only as a ghost to Brutus once in the official text) as mob justice is dealt out.

The gimmick that is to be had in this production is that Julius Caesar is a woman. I speak from some authority when I say that changing the gender of a character in the process changes all relationships, even if the lines remain but the same but for a twist of pronoun. An opening sequence in which Caesar talks about the touch of the racers of Lupercalia curing sterility reads as a male Caesar's weakness in the face of Fate in the original, but here has a cougarish twist to it. Later scenes that talk about Caesar's vulnerabilities are for a male Caesar indications of mortality, but for a female Caesar simpler weakness.

Caesar is not the only gender-swapper here. The huge number of players are handled by an entourage, and the players, male and female, move easily between multiple roles, underscoring that in this play of Fortune, they are replaceable parts. So this Caesar's Rome is an equal-opportunity tyranny, with the main supporting roles tacked down for a handful of players. This mutes the effect of a female Caesar, in than we have female senators, soldiers, and citizens as well.

Vilma Silva is wonderful as Julius Caesar, engaged and active when alive and icy as a ghost, but the meatier party is Jonathan Haugen's Brutus. Centuries of equating Brutus with "brute" hides the fact that Brutus is the smartest and most ethical man in Rome. He is the one who the conspirators seek out, for his good name provides them cover for their deed, and even after, he continues to pursue the ideal as opposed to settling for the realpolitik. Gregory Linington essays Cassius with a East Coast wit and acerbity, and Mark Anthony is portrayed by Danforth Comins as a trickster god, and you can see him bobbing weaving as he seeks to turn the assassination back onto the assassins.

And then there is the mob. When coming into the theater, the players are milling with the patrons (I caught this, but the LB did not). Then Silva calls the group to quiet and leads the audience in cheers. In doing casts the audience in the role of the mob, the Roman populace that turns from Pompey to Caesar to Brutus to Anthony. Showing the mob to be fickle and easily moved, this simple conceit makes the audience complicit with the crimes of the play.

It is, all in all, an excellent production, but I will pick at a nit. The play takes place not in Rome, but in a land and era I call "Shakespearea". I have seen Shakespeares set in the 1600s and Shakespeares set in the time period set by the play and modern Shakespeares and 1920s Shakespeares. Productions like this one are set in Shakespearea are a strange melding of eras that produce its own reality. The text may belong to Shakespeare's time, or try to portray the late Roman Republic, but the costuming is quasi-modern with kilts and camouflage and commando pants and black berets. The military uniforms belong to some unspecified army and era that distills down the nature of the military without belonging to any particular force. Caesar's wide-lapeled cloak (used to great effect, literally waving the blood shirt) looks like it had be looted from the wardrobe department of Dr. Who.

But that is a small nit, and one that this production is not singular in committing. It is an excellent production and my second-favorite of the trip (the first being "Pirates"). Well worth seeing.

More later.