Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Julius Caesar (17 August 2011)

Julius Caesar was just another example of how the space you use impacts the production. The New Theater is small, and for this show, was set up in the round, a set of bleacher-like seats on all four sides, and entrances at the four corners. Our seats were right up at the top of one of the sets of seats, so I could look behind me and down into the backstage area. Brilliant.

This set-up made for an extremely minimalistic set (i.e. there wasn’t one)… or maybe they decided on an extremely minimalistic set and arranged the theater accordingly. The actors would occasionally drag out chairs from the wings… or on several occasions, a table. The lack of sets helped draw the audience into the action, taking away all other distractions and putting us right there with the conspirators.

Director Amanda Dehnert made an interesting decision in giving the part of Julius Caesar to a woman, and Vilma Silva did a wonderful job with it. Since the setting was modern, I didn’t have any problem with Caesar being a woman. In fact, her charisma with the crowds (played by the audience with a little help from the rest of the cast) gave her an Evita-esque feel. Since Caesar was a woman, the bit where Caesar’s wife tries to persuade him not to go to the senate on 15 March obviously had to be tweaked. They ended up giving Calpurnia’s dream to Caesar herself, and giving many of Calpurnia’s lines to Mark Antony. This, in turn, gave Caesar and Mark Antony a much more intimate relationship, which worked for me.

The way the stage was set up, the actors spent much of their “off-stage time” sitting practically in the audience. It felt very informal… and yet it wasn’t distracting at all. Lighting helped draw the attention away from them, but you always knew they were there… watching. And then, once Caesar was killed, her ghost spent the rest of the play on the sidelines, watching, occasionally interacting, especially when someone was killed, which happens a lot since this is a tragedy. Occasionally I would forget that she was there. Then, when I noticed her again, sitting in the audience or hovering somewhere, it gave me chills. It went a long way to emphasizing that this story is bigger than any one person or event, that the ghost of Caesar will never fully leave the conspirators alone, that the consequences of their actions are far-reaching, and that in the end, it was all for naught.

And while we’re on the subject of small, the cast for this character-heavy play was very small. The four main actors (playing Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony) were augmented by seven other actors playing all the rest of the parts (24 of them!). It wasn’t always easy to keep all the parts sorted out, but at the time, it didn’t really matter, because the essentials were there. Who really cares, in the long run, if it’s Casca, Cinna, Trebonius or Decius Brutus after all? Danforth Comins played Mark Antony. During the first half I was a little disappointed, because Mark Antony wasn’t the hateful character I remembered him to be. But in the second half, from Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral on, he was a nasty piece of work. Gregory Linington was very good as Cassius, I thought. He was impulsive and a firebrand and intense.

At the end, as is the case with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage is literally filled with dead bodies. But over and above all the blood and death, the clever staging and simple but effective special effects, the message of the play stood out: Don’t try this at home; it doesn’t work. And when you think about the political unrest in Elizabeth’s time, it’s easy to see why the politically safe Shakespeare chose this story to tell.

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