This political season seems to alternately rivet and bore the electorate. The same might be said for William Shakespeare’s supremely political tragedy, “Julius Caesar,” now in a new adaptation at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
The audience sits up at attention during the central scenes of the play: the assassination and funeral of the Roman leader Julius Caesar (Madrid St. Angelo). Bookending this dramatic core are scenes that require the audience to listen with a more nuanced ear to material that is harder to digest but critical for making sense of the main events. And here the audience’s attention may flag. As in politics, you may choose to tune out, but you do so at your own risk.
To paraphrase a line from “Julius Caesar,” the fault is not in the ably performed production, but in Shakespeare’s words themselves, that he was an underling to both his public and his patrons. In a program note, Michael Halberstam, who adapted and directed the play with Scott Parkinson, nicely sums up the tension between political power and the rule of the people in Shakespeare’s time: “Because Shakespeare was writing for a nation ruled by a monarch who supposedly held power through divine right, that tension is particularly fraught, and it is not possible for him to take sides.”
Parkinson, who does triple duty by appearing as Cassius — his fourth time in the role — reveals how he and Halberstam worked to counter the image of Cassius and his conspirators as one-dimensional evil-doers: “I am keen to tell a story where the blame for the play’s tragic events don’t easily rest on any one character’s shoulders; these are all complicated individuals who each make highly questionable choices.”
The adapters streamlined Shakespeare’s five acts into 105 nonstop minutes, a choice that works well enough but that may have left some important ambiguities on the cutting room floor. As a result, lazy theatergoers may be too eager to look for over-simplified political parallels between Roman times and our own.
One such example comes when Cassius attempts to enlist Brutus (Kareem Bandealy) in a plot to overthrow Julius Caesar by describing Caesar’s fainting spell (the actual Caesar may have been hobbled by epilepsy or migraines) to highlight the leader’s frailty. With opening night coming on the heels of Trump’s mockery of Clinton’s pneumonial wooziness, the parallels may have seemed comic, but those who laughed were missing the larger point. Cassius is not Donald Trump, nor is Caesar Hillary Clinton.
Rather, the most powerful political parallels between Roman times and our own have to do with the fickleness of the electorate and the failure to listen to the other side. When Mark Antony (Thomas Vincent Kelly in a moving performance) delivers the famous lines, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” the crowd hears none of the nuances in the most nuanced funeral oration is history. Nor do they grasp what Brutus tries to explain about his reluctant complicity in the assassination plot: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Casesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to leave all free men?”
But nuances don’t make for good sound bites, as our current election cycle demonstrates. The Roman crowd responds with mayhem — and this production excels at depicting mayhem. Much of the credit for that goes to scenic designer Courtney O’Neill, whose jumble of slightly off-kilter monoliths, enhanced with video projections by Breone Arzell, self-destructs like a Shakespearen character cornered into suicide. Credit also goes to costume designer Mara Blumenfeld for clothing the populace in black tank tops emblazoned like gang shirts with “SPQR” — the initials of the Latin phrase “Senate Populusque Romanus” (“The Roman Senate and the People”).
It may be difficult to get audiences to pay attention to subtleties, but it is a worthy mission, one that this production might improve on my sharpening the exposition and denouement. It might help to drop the piano lounge background music that threatens to drown out some of the early dialogue. In any case, the audience also bears responsibility. In plays and as politics, it’s all about paying attention.
Through Oct. 16, 2016
Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets $35 – $80 at Writers Theatre or (847) 242-6000
Photos: Michael Brosilow