“And this woman is now become a god!” exclaims Cassius of “Julius Caesar.”
Yes, you read that correctly. In putting a fresh spin on this classic tale of ambition and betrayal, the new production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” challenges modern audiences to consider the public reception of women in positions of power by reimagining the would-be tyrant of Rome as female.
“Julius Caesar” follows Brutus, Cassius and other Roman senators who conspire to assassinate Caesar. They fear she has grown so powerful that she will reach for the crown, trampling upon Rome’s democratic values and their own political aspirations. The play is directed by Carrie Mannino ’20 and produced by Aaron Hwang ’18.
Caesar (Anelisa Fergus ’19) cuts a striking image in the midst of toga-clad senators in an iconic, white pantsuit that audience members will immediately associate with Hillary Clinton’s customary dress. Her power heels and blood red lipstick complete the purposefully anachronistic characterization of a classic representation of masculinity. By stopping short of a true imitation, however, the production succeeds in generalizing the plight of Caesar to every woman, in public office or the corporate world, who fosters ambitions.
Shakespeare’s Caesar has always been a divisive production, every iteration asking the audience to cast its sympathies in different directions. Cassius fears a tyranny, yet he is undeniably envious of Caesar’s renown and, in this production, is construed as despising a female leader. Caesar is a strong woman, yet she makes foolish decisions that cause her to fall victim to the system in which she places her trust. Brutus is noble and wishes to do right by the Roman people, yet he murders his friend in cold blood.
How are we as an audience supposed to reconcile feelings of sympathy for Caesar, the victim and Brutus, the traitor? Why do we mourn along with Antony (Sarah Young ’20) at Caesar’s funeral, yet Brutus’ death strikes just as close to home?
Much credit can be given to Zak Rosen’s ’20 poignant and compelling performance as Brutus. It is gut-wrenching to watch Brutus, the show’s emotional anchor, agonize over the decision to murder Caesar, his friend, whom he fears will destroy Rome by fashioning herself as a king. It is unclear exactly how the character of Brutus translates into the larger context of feminism and political power, yet he resonates with the audience all the same. Perhaps we relate to his struggles to reconcile his love for his friend with his love for his country. Brutus is portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful and loyal, but this same decency misleads him to monstrosity. Does Brutus really deserve the title he is given at the end of the play, “the noblest Roman of them all”?
Cassius (Zeb Mehring, ’19) is an excellent counterbalance to the “noble” Brutus. He is delightfully animated, envious and positively incensed that a woman should rule Rome. A false friend to Caesar, Cassius is threatened by her excessive “ambition” and questions why she should be honored above all. Cassius’ denunciations of Caesar’s prowess hit more sharply in the context of this gender-bending play. Each argument he uses to persuade Brutus to treason appears rational on the surface but smacks of sexism. He even casts doubt upon her health, echoing election year rhetoric against Clinton. The shift in pronouns seems to emphasize not Caesar’s actions but rather Caesar’s gender: “Why, man, she doth bestride the narrow world / like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under her huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves,” complains Cassius.
As is customary of traditional Shakespearean theater, the stage is very simple: a white tiled floor with three columns to suggest Ancient Rome. The uncluttered setting allows the focus to rest unfettered on the actors and the poetry of iambic pentameter. The audience surrounds the stage on three sides, which allows viewers to interact with the characters and invites them, like members of the Roman senate, to decide for themselves the justness of the conspirators’ actions. At one point, certain members of the audience are even encouraged to participate onstage as part of an angry mob (those interested should sit in the front row). The musical chords derived from warped electric guitar and stretched out dubstep add a haunting, doomed tone to the proceedings.
Caesar’s role in the play is, in fact, minimal, and in the absence of her and her iconic pantsuit, the play at times seems to lapse back into the same sort of traditional play one might have watched in the Globe Theater as scene after scene features classic togas and Shakespeare’s formal dialogue. I was grateful for the passionate performances from the cast — which attempt to relieve the monotony of pillars, politicians and predictable prophecies — but began to wonder if the play’s defining gender-bending twist had not been emphasized enough.
That is, until the very end of the play. Whereas the classic version concludes with Brutus’ death, this iteration stuns audience members with one final, vivid image: Octavius, vanquisher of the conspirators and Caesar’s successor, lounging smugly in a throne-like swivel chair at an Oval Office-esque desk, and, lying in a cubby in the front, a crumpled American flag.
As playgoers exit the theater, this striking picture is seared into their minds. They are forced to view the events of the play through a modern political lens and perhaps question their own personal biases toward women in power.
Julius Caesar will be performed Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 12–14, at 8 p.m. with a matinee Saturday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at the Iseman Theater (1156 Chapel St.).
Claire Zalla | firstname.lastname@example.org