Julius Caesar – Lend Me Your Fears
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
(This is The Bad Oracle’s “family matters” disclosure: someone involved in this production is related to or the partner of a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer, which is why it is here.)
If you had told me a couple of weeks ago that I would be leaving a production of Julius Caesar excited about the future prospect of seeing Shakespeare’s Roman plays performed live, I would be as surprised as if you told me I’d be exiting with my head sewn to my kneecap. I’m just saying what most people are thinking; these (and the histories, God help us) tend to be a little…dry. There isn’t much family intrigue going on (like Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet) to keep it relatable. It’s a lot of political posturing and long speeches, and there isn’t even a Mother of Dragons hanging around looking like Emilia Clarke. That being said, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production is exciting and that’s pretty fucking impressive, in my opinion.
Director Chris Cotterman serves a Caesar trussed up like Colonial Williamsburg, meaning tricornes galore. This concept was my least favorite thing about the show, but I got it. The Birth of America motif does shorthand to hatred of King. It also shorthands to Hamilton, but whatever. Cotterman’s note says the decision was both aesthetic (he thinks togas are silly, which, yeah, but I’d be willing to say they don’t look any more ridiculous than short pants) and meant to resonate with an American audience in the same way that the original resonated with 16th century British theatergoers. But it seemed muddled to me, and a bit confusing. The American Revolution was all about the giddiness of the new, of the forging of a dream. The events of the play, and their emotional backbone, come from their proximity to the death of a Republic, of the destruction of a dream. Interestingly, Cotterman’s note also says that he considered staging the show present day, with Roman eagle wings taking the place of tiny stars-and-bars lapel pins. In a way, this would have been easier, lazier, but if he was looking for resonance, could have been a real gut punch. Threat to the Republic, indeed. What Cotterman is, though, and blessedly, is an actor’s director. The man is an intensely great performer, and his direction is sensitive, fundamental, and clean. That’s where the heart of the play is, and that’s what you should show up for. When I say I was excited by the show, it’s what I mean.
Utkarsh Rajawat, playing Caius Cassiuso, is an incredible up-and-coming talent. He is so intense, fucking weary and wary. The performance is confident, and he plays Caius as a man conflicted – watch how he says, “What trash is Rome” like a disappointed patriot. Beautiful. Anne Shoemaker is a gift to the Baltimore small stage, and her dominant presence as the title character is a treat to watch (that dark look after “Would he were fatter!” tho). I had no idea what to make of Shannon Ziegler as Marcus Brutus, the leader of the coup that stabs up Caesar good. She’s so tiny, and has such a slight impression that I worried that she wouldn’t have the impact I was looking for, but fucking joke’s on me, because it’s an inspired casting. Tiny she might be, but she’s forceful, and, more than that, she’s emotional. Brutus is complicated, and Ziegler doesn’t have all the answers. And that’s the right thing. Fred Fletcher-Jackson is pretty hot as the teary Mark Antony, and (more importantly) gives some fucking boss oration, which is only appropriate. Katharine Vary is most effective in her role as Portia, Brutus’ wife. She’s strong, and swings kind of Amazonian warrior queen with it, defiantly slashing up her thighs as the consummate solider’s wife. Liz Galuardi seems to play a thousand different roles, but she’s heartbreaking as Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, AKA The Woman Everyone Should Have Probably Fucking Listened To.
I want to give a little note: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory could benefit from defining who they are and where they fit among the numerous stages that produce this type of work. I have a feeling the they are in transition, caught between their commitment to “re-create as closely as possible the conditions that an audience in the Elizabethan/Jacobean periods would have experienced if they attended one of the theaters of that time” and seeming to chafe against that mission. They cast women in male roles, for example, which is about as far as you can get from the Elizabethan stage (even if you accept their work-around that it’s the same as the “cross gender casting” of the period, which, no). The gender blind casting is fine, preferable, if you ask me, but it does muddy their stated purpose, is what I’m saying. I’d like to see them find a strong, playable, interesting mission that more closely matches what they are currently doing on stage. End of note.
BOTTOM LINE: I wasn’t as jazzed for the colonial setting of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s Julius Caesar as I was for the nuanced performances. The acting is spectacular, bursting with life and purpose, and that’s what I like to see. If you are afraid of the Romans, don’t be. This felt current, present, and alive.
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