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A Very Modern Julius Caesar

by Emily Williams

August 11, 2009

The Charlotte Shakespeare Festival - McGlohan Theater
Wednesday 8/12 and Thursday 8/13 at 7:30 pm
Friday 8/14 and Saturday 8/15 at 2:00 & 8:00 pm
Sunday 8/16 at 3:00 pm
Admission is free

The thing about Shakespeare is that his plays can easily be applied to almost any timeframe, any place. Everyone from Kenneth Brannagh and Mel Gibson to the local Abbey Players at Belmont Abbey College have performed Shakespeare set in the 19th Century, the Middle Ages, the present, and any time in between. This can and will always be attributed to the timeless, enduring qualities found within his canon; human foibles and triumphs are equally represented through his characters. Shakespeare is like a mirror to the human condition, which is why we so enjoy continuing to gaze into it, looking at ourselves through imagery and words. Some of that timelessness showed up in the opening performance of The Charlotte Shakespeare Festival’s summer production of Julius Caesar.  

Due to its heavy political undertones, theater companies often set Caesar in a modern 20th century time-frame, and the CSF followed suit. The title emperor is a presidential candidate this time around, played with an equal amount of suave and pathos by Jonavan Adams (one couldn’t help seeing the Obama connection, as Adams is an African-American actor). The set is spare, with cleverly-pleated white sheets as Roman-style pillars and the heavy use of a screen on the stage behind the actors, flashing Fox News-like images reporting on the Caesar/Brutus struggle. With everyone looking like political pundits in button-down dress suits, heels and ties, Rome is transformed into a local government or perhaps even D.C. 

Brutus himself, played by Joe Copley, is an odd one. Copley’s Brutus is quietly meditative on his plans towards overthrowing and eventually murdering Caesar and an aura of calm, inward reasoning and dialogue surrounds him. He lacks the burning jealousy or cunning that is traditionally associated with the character. Once Act II roles along, he picks up steam, but his stoic demeanor never truly cracks. It is the fiery, intelligent performance of Cassius by Andrea King (women in masculine roles are always a pleasing contradiction) that focuses our attention on the murder plot as she passionately proclaims her loyalty to Brutus, her apparent love interest here. 

The space of the McGlohan Theater suits this production well, as the audience rarely feels left out of the action. When Cassius addresses the citizens of Rome, literally or rhetorically, she’s looking straight at us. Caesar’s funeral includes actors shouting at the stage while sitting in the audience and as Mark Antony (Chaz Pofahl) holds up the blood-stained suit jacket to the mourners (us), as we gaze at Caesar laid out on a funeral pyre, there are eerie echoes of presidential assassinations. I was surprised that Caesar wasn’t murdered by gunshots, given the modern-day setting, but instead stabbed by daggers, in the old style. Yet pistols do show up on stage as props and plot devices, which gave the feeling of a melding between old and new. 

Pofahl’s Antony is emotional, yet centered and as the climatic battles of Act II progress, since Brutus’s administration seems to have collapsed into an apocalyptic police state, Mark Anthony takes control. His acting chops outshine Scott Reynolds’s middle-aged Octavius, a role often seen played by a younger actor, and though the role is small, Reynolds seems to somehow shrink it even smaller. Yet, then again, casting Shakespeare with a variable twist is one of the fun factors of staging his plays. 

In the end, despite a few small issues, the production is tight and energetic. It tells the lesson of just what jealousy and hasty decisions can do to change one’s fate, whether that is an exchange of power or suicide. While admission is free, be sure to donate a little something as you leave. Hearing the words “Shakespeare” and “Charlotte” within the same sentence is enough for me to feel confident that the more we help these kinds of Arts events, the more likely the theater scene in Charlotte will continue to thrive!

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