PLAYSHAKESPEARE: CSF’s Julius Caesar Traditional But Still Relevant
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has been in the news lately, due to that kerfuffle (or is it covfefe?) around the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production earlier this summer, which depicted the titular Roman ruler as President Trump. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s Caesar is nowhere near so controversial, yet manages to prove the continued relevance of the 400-year-old play in spite of the traditional setting.
Director Anthony Powell takes a fairly traditional approach to Caesar, setting the play in Ancient Rome. The costumes consist entirely of tunics, togas, and sandals — with the exception of the plebeians in the first scene. The show opens with a carpenter and cobbler, in modern dress, approaching from the audience to address Roman soldiers, who are trying to calm their celebrations. As the scene progresses, more audience members, many holding beers or other adult beverages, stand and begin to contribute shouts of “Hail, Caesar!” They pop up like Whack-a-Moles, leading the audience to distrust even their neighbor’s identity, lest they be a secret Roman. While clever and funny, the message is clear — we, the audience, are Rome, and this is only the first time we realize that fact.
The set is simple and minimalist, a blank gray slate which can become a bright Roman parlor, where conspirators plan late into the night; a dark, apocryphal storm; the Capitol on the Ides of March; a bloody battlefield bathed in red; and a star-filled night sky at the end of the play. The technical effects, which include impressively atmospheric light and sound cues, do the heavy lifting here, and do it well.
As always, the actors are on point. Robert Sicular is good as a pompous but unaware Caesar. His decision (later changed) to stay in on the fateful day to ease the fears of his worried wife, Calpurnia (Shelly Gaza), gives us a glimpse of his gentler private side; his only crimes seem to be arrogance (but who in this play isn’t?) and trusting his political “allies” a bit too much. The audience never sees the ambitious monster the conspirators fear.
Scott Coopwood’s Brutus comes across as honorable but fatally naive. While his inner struggle is obvious, he seems almost too easily swayed by the words of Cassius and the other conspirators. In fact, he feels more like Othello, if the Moor’s fatal flaw was optimistic patriotism rather than jealousy. But perhaps that is a result of Matthew Schneck’s delightfully manipulative Cassius — his ambiguous motives (an implication that his concerns about Caesar may be more personal than he lets on), the way he so clearly pulls the strings of all the conspirators, and his patient erosion of even Brutus’s objections evoke Iago in the best ways. It’s difficult not to root for him, if only to see his well-laid plans come to fruition, and especially right after the assassination, when Brutus insists on allowing Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Schneck’s delivery of the simple line, “Brutus, a word with you” has the audience laughing, but anyone who knows how the next act plays out wants to shake Brutus and yell, “Listen to Cassius!” Coopwood and Schneck’s chemistry, first apparent in CSF’s production of Taming (as Petruchio and Grumio, respectively), makes the conspirator scenes riveting and elevates an otherwise forgettable scene in Act 4: Brutus and Cassius, neck-deep in war, argue heatedly, hurl painful accusations, apologize, and eventually make up like the bros they are. The raw intensity of emotion and utter reality of the scene is breathtaking.