Julius Caesar at the Hanna Saving the Republic

We went to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Hanna Theatre last Friday. Like many from deep blue Cuyahoga County, we sat on the edge of our seats watching for references to the current political situation. Would, for instance, the actor playing Caesar bear striking resemblance to President Donald J. Trump? Not so much, dear reader, but this Great Lakes Theater (GLT) production resonates with other aspects of our fractious political moment. And baked into this 400-year old text we found an uncanny insight into American democracy. Read on, but be warned. Spoilers abound. 

The first thing we hear in this production is the people of Rome, the rabble, chanting “Caesar! Caesar!” The first thing we see is Jodi Dominick as the Soothsayer looming with piercing eyes in the portals of the balcony. This is the Soothsayer who later warns Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” one of many warnings ignored in this play. Neither the chant, nor the Soothsayer’s early appearance are in Shakespeare’s script but there in a nutshell this production gives us the thesis and antithesis of this play, the hero marching toward the crown while disaster waits in the wings.

Dominick is only one of many women that director Sara Bruner has cast in roles that Shakespeare wrote for men. GLT perennial Carole Healey appears as Julius Caesar, looking very much like Hillary Clinton. We’re sorry to say that this female Caesar is every bit as arrogant and oblivious as Shakespeare’s male Caesar, observing all ceremonies and checking political boxes as she moves – she thinks — ever closer to the crown.

Shakespeare’s Rome suffers from a dearth of strong female characters. It’s a veritable Caliphate, a Handmaid’s Tale. Consider Brutus’ wife Portia (Jillian Kates) and Caesar’s wife Calpurnia. In Shakespeare’s script they both go down on their knees begging their husbands to stay home only to be finally ignored, and only to be proven right by the turn of events.

Of course, GLT’s Caesar is a woman so Caesar’s spouse must be a man, unless we’re ready for a ruling same sex couple. Shades of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second and Mayor Pete! So, Calpurnius is played by M. A. Taylor, who resists the temptation to play his part as a Bill Clinton look-alike. Instead, we found ourselves watching Taylor’s very vulnerable performance and wondering what we and the contemporary electorate expect of the husbands of our female leaders.

Lean and hungry Cassius, the instigator of the plot to kill Caesar, is also cast as a woman. Even today, females are relatively rare among political leaders, military leaders, and lead assassins – and how do we expect our female leaders to look and behave? Laura Welsh Berg presents one possible role model, but as naturally as she wears Cassius’ treachery and cunning, it’s not a good look on a character, male or female.

Shakespeare’s drama, and especially the ‘historical’ dramas – indeed, all of Elizabethan drama – includes lots of killing, but for onstage deaths by knife and sword Julius Caesar must take some statistical prize. You have Caesar’s murder by multiple stab wounds and a civil war including two grisly assisted suicides. How is a live theater production to present all that blood and gore?

Some recent productions of Julius Caesar have opted for lots of fake blood and choreographed battle scenes, all to mixed reviews. GLT, on the other hand, has opted for a decidedly unrealistic depiction of blood and gore which we found both poetic and effective. Judging from the silence with which the audience witnessed Caesar’s death, we were not the only ones so moved.

Similarly, rather than attempting to stage battle scenes, GLT has allowed Shakespeare’s text to describe off stage action. David Anthony Smith as Pindarus gave voice to one effective passage, the supposed capture of Titinius. Even though the movies of today can depict death and violence realistically, we still find these 400-year-old theatrical devices strangely effective.

Caesar is murdered halfway through Shakespeare’s play, leaving Brutus, played here by Lynn Robert Berg, as arguably the real tragic hero of this play. But Brutus is a flawed hero, manipulated by Cassius and driven by motivations that are not as unselfish as he would like to believe. For us, flawed equals interesting, so Brutus is our kind of tragic hero.

In one scene we found particularly interesting, Brutus accuses Cassius of defending bribe takers and peddling influence, even as Brutus himself begs for some of Cassius’ ill-gotten gains to pay his legions. Political change is expensive, it seems. Meanwhile, is it 70 or 100 senators that have been killed by Octavius and Antony? It doesn’t look like Brutus’ and Cassius’ plot to save the Republic is going so well.

Throughout, the fickle Roman rabble has been asserting itself in both Shakespeare’s text and in this production. They get their big scene when Mark Antony, played here by Nick Steen, twists them around his little finger in his big funeral oration…. You know the one:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Steen gets high marks for stepping out from behind innumerable other performances of this famous speech and giving it his own interpretation. But if you’re looking for contemporary relevance, disinformation, Russian bots, or toxic twitter accounts, the text has none of that. Apparently in Shakespeare’s time political manipulation was low tech. The speech is a paragon for seeming to say one thing while really saying something else entirely; Steen is the master of manipulation here. 

Which brings us to Shakespeare’s uncanny insight, which we’re not the only ones to have noticed. For all the ambitious men, Brutus’ good intentions, or Caesar’s death, nothing in Shakespeare’s play or in history can save the Roman Republic. Because when the Republic is ripe to fall… but that’s not it. It’s not the Republic. It’s the electorate become a fickle mob that precipitates the fall. Even though Caesar is murdered by a group of men who, at best, hope to save the Roman Republic from a tyrant, the Republic is plunged into civil war and Rome is ruled thereafter by a succession of tyrants – nothing that could happen to this North American republic, eh?

Julius Caesar runs through Sunday 11/3/2019 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E 14th St., Cleveland 44115. Go (http://www.playhousesquare.org/events/detail/julius-caesar) HERE for show times and tickets.

We watched the Great Lakes Theater production of Julius Caesar at the Hanna Theatre on opening night, Saturday 10/5/2019.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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