Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a familiar play with a familiar story: the tyrant is murdered by conspirators in the capital, who then must try to defend their actions against armies loyal to Caesar. It is a play rife with lines we love to quote: “Beware the ides of March!,” “Et tu, Brute?,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,” “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” It is taught in middle school, and staged by community theaters. Shakespeare himself mocks the tale’s familiarity by having the blowhard Polonius proclaim pompously to Hamlet, “I did enact Julius Caesar.” We know this play, is my point.
And since this is the case, the challenge when staging Julius Caesar is to find some way to shine fresh light on such recognizeable territory. The Public sparked some controversy in the summer of 2017 by Trumpifying their Caesar in Central Park so as to examine the contemporary resonance of tyranny and its fallout. The current production at Theatre for a New Audience looks more to the eternal than the immediate. Helmed by Shana Cooper, making her off-Broadway debut after directing an earlier version of this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, this Julius Caesar ponders, compellingly, how cycles of violence often break the bounds created by their impetus and spiral into uncontrollable new terrain.
With some boldly stylized fight scenes and an excellent cast, Cooper’s Caesar proves regularly captivating, if occasionally puzzling. Not all her decisions hit home, but certainly the production succeeds in giving fresh life to this familiar play.
The most notable and stylized aspect of the production are the highly choreographed battle scenes. When the armies led by Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden) and Octavius Caesar (Benjamin Bonenfant) meet in the second-act combat, very few stage-blows are traded. Instead, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center’s stage fills with actors who do battle seemingly with the air in front of them as the full cast shares choreography of stabbing, punching, taking and giving damage. Occasionally this might feel a bit like Shakespeare-rendered-by-boy-band or a callback to the classic ’80s video game Double Dragon, but on the whole, the technique raises the battle out of the realm of interpersonal or even political strife: these men are fighting with the very idea of violence that drives them.
This ponderous treatment of violence and death runs throughout the production. Late in the first act, for example, Cooper gives a relatively insignificant death a full operatic treatment, as a character who shows up only to be killed is dispatched with the willful caprice of the mob. Shakespeare doesn’t give much regard to this poor soul, but Cooper’s Julius Caesar asks us to wrestle with the full extent of violence running throughout this Rome.
For all of the production’s high concept, it remains anchored by an impressive cast. In their frequent debates as chief conspirators Brutus and Cassius, Dirden and Mathew Amendt give Shakespeare’s poetry a sense of the colloquial that makes the language seem familiar, but not lowered. Jordan Barbour’s Mark Antony evolves importantly from the worry-free carouser protected by the dictator’s inner-circle to the man of action he must become after Caesar’s assassination.
All of this plays out on Sibyl Wickersheimer’s evocatively ramshackle set, dominated by cracked and torn sheetrock that becomes only less stable as the play progresses. This is a Rome always in imperfect and faulty construction.
Not every innovative technique works here (nor are all techniques entirely innovative), but certainly this Julius Caesar succeeds in giving us reason to revisit this Shakespearean chestnut with fresh eyes.