It’s very easy to wheel out Shakespeare for yet another production. It’s effortless to claim that your production is Important because it speaks to the current political climate. But without clear intentions or any focus, Scena’s Julius Caesar, directed by Robert McNamara, is serviceable, but not essential.
In addition to directing the play, Robert McNamara, Scena’s Artistic Director, plays Caesar as a gangster. His performance earns no love or respect for Caesar, who comes off as a slimeball. Interestingly, Brutus doesn’t seem much more likeable. Ian Blackwell Rogers plays the “noblest Roman of them all” very understated. He seems mildly responsive to Cassius’s flattery and eager to talk himself into assassinating Caesar. His chill demeanor climaxes when he asks his servant Strato to assist his suicide in the most nonchalant way possible.
David Bryan Jackson’s Cassius is much more varied. His smooth conniving, riding the razor’s edge of nobility and self-interest, is a delight to watch, especially as he plays Brutus like a fiddle.
Barry McEvoy’s Mark Antony, too, is a great addition to the show, who grows from a hungover mob enforcer to il Duce with such passion that a follow-up production of Antony & Cleopatra is a tempting proposition, and might actually be a more relevant political critique.
McNamara does demonstrate a deft understanding of the script with his cuts, bringing the show to a swift 110-minute duration with no intermission. When Amanda Forstrom’s Portia begs her husband Brutus to open up to her, the scene is heavily cut to its benefit. Forstrom’s performance isn’t bogged down by text, but rather stays present and engaging. Portia and Brutus’s relationship in this one scene is a clear high point in the show, as Folstrom flows between tactics and draws Rogers’s Brutus out.
The show is packed with strange and brief directorial choices by McNamara. Artemidorus’s letter to Caesar warning him of Cassius’s plot turns into a harmonica blues jam, the only song like it in the show. When Mark Antony and Octavius parlay with Cassius and Brutus, their troops are represented by a toy tank and jet fighter. This doesn’t happen again in any other scene or even in the same scene with Cassius and Brutus’s soldiers, who are normal size people, the very same who just awkwardly put a tiny toy plane on the set by Mark Antony’s feet.
McNamara suggests that the play is set in modern day Washington, DC, but meanders at every opportunity. The worst offender is Heather Jackson’s costume design. Falling far short of here & now, the senators of Rome wear double-breasted suits, gold chains, and gaudy rings. Meanwhile, the teaming masses almost uniformly wear jean jackets and newsboy caps. The show looks more like a dated Guy Ritchie crime thriller than a critique of Trump’s America. Julius Caesar himself is clearly not a politician at all, but a gangster clinging to the last vestiges of the ‘80s.
The out-of-date London underworld aesthetic goes out the window when war comes to Rome. Mark Antony trades in his tracksuit and sunglasses for a heavily fascist-inspired black military uniform, and the people of Rome switch to berets and leather jackets – less baffling, but bringing the play nowhere it hasn’t been many times before.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s videos, played over three small TV screens above the set, show much more intentionality, but point in many different directions. Sometimes, images of Washington, DC, are shown to set the scene. Other times, those images are super-imposed over images of Rome, Berlin, London, Budapest, and likely others. Words in English, Latin, German, and Greek flash, distract from the performances and giving little to non-polyglots.
closes September 24, 2017
Details and tickets
Robertson’s projections, from RNN, presumably the Roman News Network, contribute the most in well-crafted weather forecasts. A storm approaches the DC metro area, then slams it with a hurricane’s radar pattern. Not only does this contribute to the light and sound to better embody the storm that follows Caesar’s assassination, but finally grounds the production in a conceivable setting. Too little, too late, however.
Because Shakespeare is so often produced, a clear purpose goes a long way in justifying what might be the second or third Julius Caesar you’ve considered attending since the last presidential election. This production has enough going on that it doesn’t feel lazy. It just feels ineffectually manic, and that doesn’t build an argument for why its $40 ticket deserves to be the Julius Caesar you see to cope with politics these days.
Julius Caesar. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert McNamara. Performed by Kevin Boudreau, Kim Curtis, Amanda Forstrom, David Bryan Jackson, David Johnson, Louis Lavoie, Ron Litman, Barry McEvoy, Robert McNamara, Daniel Noake. Anne Nottage, Danielle Scott, Rob’ Sheire, Greg Ongao, and Ian Blackwell Rogers. Set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Sound design by Denise Rose. Projection design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Lighting design by Jonathan Alexander. Costume design by Heather Jackson. Choreography by Robert McNamara. Fight direction by Paul Gallagher. Stage management by Hannah Fogler. Produced by Scena Theatre. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.