Friday, February 15, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Julius Caesar' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photo: Liz Lauren
Photo: Liz Lauren

There is a compulsion today to jam a play’s relevance down the audience’s throat—spicing up classical texts with easily digestible contemporary settings. Too often though, what we’re left with is “Julius Caesar” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Roman politicians who speak in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, shop at Men’s Warehouse and all the while haven’t a speck of menace, greed or desire about them.
Plus, while lacking in creativity, edging closer to reality brings up a few nagging questions. In a world (and production) of guns, why stab Caesar with knives? “Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers,” right? Did the assassination air live on CSPAN? Since Casca (a sassy Larry Yando) films videos with his Blackberry, are there also metal detectors? In supplanting the play to today, plausibility becomes the antagonist, and the simple, powerful message of ambition and its dangers is all but obliterated.
Director Jonathan Munby’s “Caesar,” which opened on Wednesday night, begins with an impromptu line dance at a Navy Pier-like attraction. The crowd, novelty foam hands in tow, gradually joins in on a group electric slide, at the end of each choreographic phrase shouting “Cae-sar!” Thankfully, the lame party is dispersed by two cops, Murellus and Flavius, who shoot their pistols into the air and lecture about loyalty to Pompey. The first of a symphony of gunshots, the booms attempt in vain to compensate for the production’s inability to shake the audience with Shakespeare. Come Act V, there is even a firing machine gun.

Though “Caesar” appears to be set in modern-day Washington D.C., the approach to the language is musty and uninvolving. The often-colloquial delivery lacks urgency, and these oratorical geniuses are robbed of their ability to inspire and manipulate. For all its visual splendor and ludicrous line dancing, this production never fully believes that the only way to restore Roman pride and the balance of nature is by taking down Caesar. Throw in as many explosions, guns, dances, songs and smoldering cars as you wish, but “Julius Caesar” is an actor’s challenge.
CST_CAES_Image8Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with staged grandeur, even excessiveness. In fact, Alexander Dodge’s spectacular set with its central ascending staircase and columns using the stage’s entire height recalls Lyric Opera’s “Elektra” from earlier this season, and facilitates some paralyzing images in collaboration with Philip S. Rosenberg’s fiery and florescent lighting. Unlike “Caesar” though, there is a bombast to Strauss’ score and an enormity to ancient Grecian emotion that was reflected by the grand environment. While “Julius Caesar” has its larger mechanisms—nature’s rebellion brought on by regicide—the play is more subtly psychological in nature. It tells of ambition’s dangers and how it could lead a powerful person to “scorn the base degrees by which he did ascend.”