It took nine seasons for the Woodward Shakespeare Festival (Fresno, CA) to finally mount a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of my favorite plays. I have taught it many times to high school students and I know the text the way I know my own address. To say that I had high expectations for this production would be an understatement, much like saying that I might not be amused if the sun did not rise in the east tomorrow morning. As I watched the production, the poetic language mesmerized me and the acting choices pleasantly surprised me. I was caught up in the intrigue, and though the play lasted more than two hours, it seemed to end much too soon.
The ones to watch as the story unfolds are Brutus (Jay Parks), Cassius (Gabriela Lawson), and Mark Antony (Mohammad Shehata). Brutus, the tragic figure of the play, both loves and fears Caesar (Rick Adamson). Parks beautifully plays the conflict within Brutus, who probably cares about Rome and its citizens more than anybody. Cassius takes full advantage of that conflict, and stokes the fire behind Brutus’s fear. Lawson plays Cassius as passionate, yet calculating. Caesar correctly recognizes the danger that Cassius poses when he says she has “a lean and hungry look.” Cassius needs Brutus on her side in order for the assassination to seem legitimate in the eyes of the people, and Caesar fails to believe that his good friend Brutus could ever stab him in the back.
The plot thickens. The conspiracy forms, and though the audience knows what is coming, the murder is shocking. Director Erica Riggs wisely stages the murder on the upper deck, which allows Shehata to make a poignant entrance as Antony below, out of sight of the assassins, but in full view of the audience. We see how disturbed he is, as he has already heard what has happened above. When Antony approaches the assassins, he masks his emotions in order to set the stage for his revenge. Antony asks to be allowed to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and Brutus agrees, stipulating that Antony not speak against the conspirators. After the assassins exit and Antony is alone with the murdered Caesar, he unleashes his rage. So many of us are familiar with Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” line, but Antony’s shout of “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war” gave me chills.
In the second half, the tide turns against Brutus and Cassius. A crowd gathers, and Caesar’s body is rolled out. Brutus speaks first to justify the killing. His argument is sound, as we all know that liberty must be paid in blood. Brutus claims, “As he was valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” Antony follows, and delivers a powerful speech that holds to his agreement not to speak against Brutus, but clearly gets the point across. Antony’s refrain of “But Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honorable man” makes Brutus seem increasingly like a monster as Antony chips away at Brutus’s claim of Caesar’s ambition. Soon the crowd is demanding to know more, and the conspirators flee Rome.
Adamson’s Caesar reinforces both sides of the argument. In Caesar’s first appearance, he is pompous, but later he is sensitive to Calpurnia’s concerns. The truth about Caesar’s ambition dies with Caesar. Whether Brutus is a hero or a villain will never be known because Caesar never had a chance to wear the crown. Shakespeare gives us both sides more or less equally, leaving us to decide for ourselves. Shakespeare never reveals his own views on Caesar’s assassination, a wise move given that in his day Elizabeth I, a target of many unsuccessful attempts on her life, was sensitive to propaganda that might feed civil unrest. Elizabeth’s Privy Council, for example, banned one scene from Shakespeare’s Richard II, the scene in which Richard was forced to hand over his crown.
My only complaint about this production is that the use of the 1960s period could have been stronger. The obvious reminders of the era were the music (which was great, by the way) and one of the costumes, Calpurnia’s dress, which looked like something Jackie Kennedy might have worn. The men’s suits looked more contemporary to my eyes, as did the military garb worn during the battle scenes in the second half. I also wondered about seeing women in combat, as that tends to be more of a recent phenomenon. It might have made more sense to set the play in today’s world.
The sound by Julie Ann Keller was awesome, especially in the battle scenes. Other standouts include Michael Peterson as Casca and Bridget Martin as Portia. The rest of the ensemble was strong in supporting roles: Aaron McGee, Brooke Aiello, Ben Baxter, Jessica Reedy, Patrick Nalty, Joshua Taber, Broderic Beard, Nick Wogan, Farrah Johnson, and Neil Cusick. Newcomer James Pius looked ominous in a suit that made me think of movie gangsters. The entire cast deserves a hearty applause.
Blood was in abundance. The death scenes of Cassius and Brutus were touching. Shakespeare’s antagonists are so fleshed out that it’s hard to cheer at their deaths. After all, Cassius and Brutus had a point, and even Antony takes a moment to say of Brutus, “This was the noblest Roman of them all.” Whenever students ask me, “What’s so great about Shakespeare,” I always say that his characters are complex and intense, and he explores issues from all sides. Julius Caesar is a play that holds up to multiple viewings, and I plan to see it again.
The Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s Julius Caesar runs for three more weekends: Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm. in Woodward Park. Admission is free. The final performance will be on September 14. You owe it to yourself to see this one.