No togas. The director of Julius Caesar, now playing at The Meadow at Johns Hopkin’s Evergreen Museum & Library, made a conscious choice not to clothe the actors in Roman garb because in his mind, they looked ridiculous. Instead, the costumes are reminiscent of Colonial America; since Shakespeare’s London was initially built by Romans, Director Chris Cotterman thought that we should go back to the foundations of America. Personally, I missed the togas. After all, this is Julius Caesar, the great Roman politician, and when in Rome, I want to live like the Romans.
…this production had strong actors which kept the play moving and made Shakespeare almost conversational.
Also noteworthy about this production is the gender-blind casting — two of the main roles, Caesar (Anne Shoemaker) and Brutus (Shannon Ziegler), are played by women. And why not? In this election year, it only seems fitting that women should have political ambition. And in a play as male-dominated as Julius Caesar, it’s nice to see some women among all that testosterone.
The story begins as a victorious Caesar returns to Rome. Cassius (Utkarsh Rajawal) persuades Brutus (Ziegler) that Caesar has become too powerful, and that he could become a tyrant if his political ambitions remain unchecked. And so Brutus joins the conspiracy to kill Caesar, claiming afterwards that the murder was committed for the sake of Rome, convincing the initially incensed commoners. However, Marc Antony (Fred Fletcher-Jackson), Caesar’s closest friend, manipulates the commoners’ emotions to turn public opinion and tells the crowd to drive the conspirators from Rome. ‘Julius Caesar’ shows just how much public opinion can be swayed, and how a mind can be quickly changed from the powers of persuasion (which again seems fitting during this election year).
If only Caesar would have listened to the advice of the soothsayer (Katie Gallagher, who seemed exhausted by the prophecy she had to give) — ‘Beware the ides of March.’ Or he could have listened to his wife, Calphurnia (Liz Galuardi), who somehow heard the rumors. Instead, he ignored these women, leading to his own downfall. In my view, ‘Julius Caesar’ was in part about these strong women who unfortunately, were unable to use their influence because of the male-dominated society. Calphurnia states she has a ‘man’s mind but a woman’s might’ while Brutus’s wife Portia (played by a captivating Katharine Vary) similarly says she is ‘stronger than her sex’ – even giving herself a flesh wound to demonstrate her strength and patience. To me, these two women (Galuardi and Vary) were the standouts of the night. Talk about 17th century girl power.
Thanks in part to a strong performance by Rajawal (Cassius), this play is also about the bromance between Brutus and Cassius, which ultimately turns toxic. At first, Cassius seems in control and able to manipulate Brutus. However, later he defers to Brutus’s decisions not to kill Marc Antony and to allow Antony to speak after Caesar’s death. After Caesar’s murder, the two have a terrible fight, where Cassius accuses Brutus of no longer loving him. And if that’s true, he would prefer Brutus to kill him. Thankfully, the bromance continues as the two admit they’re just being moody and Cassius is showing his mom’s temper.
The setting at the Meadow is bare bones Bard. In this production of Julius Caesar, the night sky is the backdrop and the trees are part of the set design. Most of the action plays out on a simple, wooden platform. There are no microphones which means that if an actor’s back is turned – or the sounds of nature become too loud – it’s tough to hear the play. However, there is something to be said about simplicity… about simply enjoying Shakespeare as the British did hundreds of years ago. This simplicity was emphasized by the music which played before the show started and during intermission, using ‘music of our time that has thematic and character connections to the play being performed.’
Unfortunately, Julius Caesar isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most loveable plays. Without the scenery, big crowd scenes, and ancient Roman garb, it becomes more difficult to understand. And since the actors are all generally on the younger side, we don’t get the perspective between the elders (like Caesar and some members of the Senate) and their heirs and younger counterparts. Plus, it’s tough to pull off a play when its namesake has a relatively small part and obviously doesn’t appear again after the first act (well, except for his ghost).
A lot of the steam goes out of the play after Brutus’s plea to the commoners and the famous Marc Antony speech (‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’). The tragedy then dwindles into bickering, reports of unseen battles, and more deaths than I cared to see. However, this production had strong actors which kept the play moving and made Shakespeare almost conversational. As I was driving home, I wondered whether Julius Caesar could be modernized… maybe as a rock musical or a political parody with Clinton and Trump. Just something to think about.
Know before you go: The Evergreen Museum & Library is located between Loyola and Notre Dame, not on the campus of Johns Hopkins (unfortunately, I missed the location the first time we drove by). Parking is on the grass. Make sure you bring chairs to sit on; a blanket would also be fine but your view may be obstructed by chairs in front of you. On the night we went, the air was muggy and warm so be prepared for the weather. Also make sure to bring bug spray and some drinks and treats (I would have loved to bring some Italian wine to go along with the play). Oh… and maybe a Caesar salad.
Running Time: Approximately 2.5 hours with a 15-minute intermission
Advisory: Mild violence.
Julius Caesar plays through Sunday, August 21, 2016 at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, Outdoors in the Meadow at Johns Hopkins Evergreen Museum & Library, 4545 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 921-9455, or purchase them online.