Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend the Media Theatre about two hours of your time to see its slick, actor-driven update of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy told here as political action thriller.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar compresses about six months of factual events and characters into tense narrative that spans a few days. In Rome, Julius Caesar (Zoran Kovcic) returns victorious from his wars of conquest. The masses love him, but many in the Senate do not, including the scheming Cassius (Charlotte Northeast) and Casca (Jake Blouch). They convince the well-respected Brutus (Damon Bonetti) to assassinate Caesar for the good of the Roman Republic. Civil war follows when Marc Antony (Jennie Eisenhower) rallies support against the conspirators.
This plot, including several referenced military battles, takes place on Matthew Miller’s stark and stunning set of a wrecked civil landscape brought low from constant wars. While projected slides mostly picture the U.S. Capitol building, fractured columns dominate the stage. Political banners flank raised platforms and identify competing factions with Banksy-fied symbols reminding of Soviet era propaganda of hammers struck through circles.
In too many instances, the too-loud sound design (by Carl Park) impedes clear understanding of the play. The main actors know how to project over this noise, but any crowd scene is muffled, even 12 rows from the stage. Bonetti and Northeast present an enjoyable tandem—her jocular, relaxed would-be killer balancing his logically impassioned orator. Their competing-motives relationship both drives and grounds the proceedings with as much conflict as the military battles. Eisenhower delivers a compelling Marc Anthony, a bit overshadowed, but fiery and vigorous nonetheless.
Director Bill Van Horn’s edited text streamlines an already short play; he retains (and Bonetti and Eisenhower put to good use) Shakespeare’s main speeches. The ensemble of Roman citizens, including the senators, shoot selfies, take iPhone photos with Caesar’s corpse, carry carbines, and ride in on motorcycles. Ryan Smith’s costumes (suits and slacks, black garbed military attire reminding a bit of Antifa) and a halfhearted slideshow attempt to draw parallels between Rome and today.
Through the lens of Shakespeare’s play and this production, the comparisons don’t quite hold up. Van Horn’s staging plays like political thriller for entertainment is a bit more Tony Scott than Oliver Stone. And today, we’ve long moved on from real regicide to conflicts driven more by character assassination, where half a nation adores a would-be emperor and few on either side any longer claim noble motives.