Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new staging of “Julius Caesar,” while cogent and sturdy, lacks dynamism and doesn’t seize opportunities to tie the text to today’s political tempests.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” wrote Shakespeare. Sometimes that tide is a tsunami.
Shakespeare’s taut and instructive play “Julius Caesar” is about a political storm surge 2,000 years ago that profoundly impacted the ancient world. But as a case study of the damage that ensues when good intentions are engulfed by unintended consequences, it could have been written yesterday.
Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new staging of “Julius Caesar” at the Cornish Playhouse is cogent and sturdy but lacks textured dynamism. Yet if the production is imperfect, the play comes through. And it’s important.
By William Shakespeare. Through Oct. 1, Cornish Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$48 (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org)
This outing, under George Mount’s direction, is straightforward and has a contemporary vibe. The Roman legislators wear business suits, not togas. A bank of video screens is tuned to the Weather Channel and cable news. And the race- and gender-diverse casting yields a black Mark Antony (Lorenzo Roberts) and Brutus (Reginald A. Jackson), while some Roman politicos, like Casca (Chantal DeGroat ), are now females.
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Yet few other correspondences with today‘s political tempests, in the U.S. and around the world, are seized upon. Heaven knows, putting a blonde Caesar in a wagging tie, as a recent New York staging did, is unnecessary. But plenty of historical and modern parallels, subtle and striking, are there to be had in the text.
When the play opens, Julius Caesar (a proud, wary Peter Crook), victorious in battle, is hailed as the supreme commander. But his imperialistic arrogance and top-heavy governance threaten Rome’s democracy, and opposition is brewing among his former political allies.
The ambitious senator Cassius of that “lean and hungry look” (played like a circling shark, by Bradford Farwell), knows his upstanding colleague Brutus (a dignified, thoughtful Reginald A. Jackson) is viewed as” the noblest Roman of them all.” To lend credence to a planned assassination of Caesar, Cassius skillfully talks a reluctant Brutus into joining the murder pact, to save Rome from dictatorship.
But Brutus is unprepared for, and deeply troubled by, the chaos that follows the deed, the kind of civil turmoil we’ve seen after dictators were toppled in Iraq, Libya and other modern nations.
The play reminds us that bold reactions can trigger seismic counter-reactions. And violence is invariably met by harsher violence.
As Rome senses a devastating tempest on the way, the citizenry grows restive. Ominous signs and portents appear, signaled aptly via the sinister sound and lighting effects of SSC’s design team.
No matter how much you expect it, the act of assassination in “Julius Caesar” is horrifying as, despite prescient warnings, the conspirators slash away, then bathe their hands in the blood of the tyrant.
But the killing’s aftermath is just as meaningful, and should be as stirring. Caesar’s protégé Mark Antony, speaking at his mentor’s funeral to “friends, Romans, countrymen,” seizes the moment to ingeniously defame Brutus, and give a master class in how to whip a dazed populace into a furious, vindictive mob. (The media helps.)
However Roberts does not project the magnetism or political mastery the play demands from Mark Antony in this famous passage. It’s hard to imagine this workmanlike oration igniting a fist fight, let alone the civil war that follows it. Roberts and company do speak Shakespeare’s verse well, which is critical.
In his best history plays, the Bard transforms a ruler’s fall into pulse-raising action — interlaced with intimate, complex portraits of those who make the history.
Case in point in this production: the well-delineated changing personal dynamic between Jackson’s ethical Brutus and Farwell’s shady Cassius.
After the dogs of war are unleashed, they come close again — not as co-conspirators and comrades, but as world-weary friends.