British director Jonathan Munby holds little back in his contemporary take on William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Julius Caesar. Presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, this hyper modern production brings to the stage machine guns, smart phones, plastic water bottles, and closed circuit televisions (on which Julius Caesar’s assassination is replayed for the benefit of Octavius). More times than not it works wonderfully. For example, I found the on stage brutalization of Cinna a Poet especially appalling due to in large part to the spectator filming the scene on her iPhone. That slight voyeuristic touch drove home the point of humanity losing out to riot. The campaign banners, crisp suits with eagles on their lapels, and the doting servants (played as fresh out of college interns) also went a long way in underscoring the intoxicating nature of politics and power. And the impersonal and sudden dispatching of lesser characters with guns also highlighted the truly violent nature of Shakespeare’s work.
Cast predominately with veteran Shakespeare actors, the characters never feel overwhelmed by the set. While alive, Julius Caesar (David Darlow) is presented as a somewhat frail (you see him repeatedly popping medication before speaking) and vain elder statesman who may or may not wish to bring a monarchy to Rome. As a ghost he has much less to do and sticks mostly to walking around in a bloody dress shirt. Julius Caesar’s friend is the tortured Marcus Brutus (John Light) whose greatest weakness may be his valor. Often playing against him is Dion Johnston who infuses a great amount of charisma into the role of Marc Anthony. Brenda Barrie (as Brutus’ wife Portia) commands attention each and every second she is on stage and made me greatly wish that William gave his female roles more than one or two scenes followed by an off-stage suicide. In addition to giving her famous warning to Julius, McKinley Carter also delivers some very hauntingly beautiful chants (sometimes from the balcony) that went a long way in setting the mood. Also worth noting is Larry Yando’s sometimes sarcastic and insider like take on Casca.
Although the audience as a whole appeared to greatly enjoy the performance, there was a lot of fidgeting toward the end of the play. This may have been in part to the repetitive and confusing closing battle scenes which seemed to rely a whole lot on cap guns and flashing lights. Despite the magnificent stage setting (in this case a ruined Rome complete with an overturned car), there are only so many times one can watch competing armies take and then leave the stage under gunfire.
I do think that this production is ultimately successful in bringing Julius Caesar into the modern era. While those unfamiliar with the Great Bard's work may find the play at times overly weighty and ponderous, it will more than entertain anyone with an even casual awareness of Shakespeare's work.
Bottom Line: Julius Caesar is recommended and is playing through March 24th at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier at the Courtyard Theater. Parking is only $10 through March 17th so long as you arrive after 5 P.M. Otherwise parking is validated at a 40% discount. To purchase tickets or for more information, click here http://www.chicagoshakes.com/main.taf?p=2,76,2,14 For more general theater information as well as reviews, click here http://www.theatreinchicago.com/
All photos by Liz Lauren unless otherwise indicated