Theater Review: “Julius Caesar” — Attacked with Vigor

Probably as it should be for a group called the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, the performances in Julius Caesar are the thing.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bryn Boice. Set designed by Christina Todesco. Lighting designed by Jen Rock. Costumes designed by Rebecca Jewett. Sound designed by Amy Attadona. Produced by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Studio 201 at The Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, MA, through December 17.

Caesar is down in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of "Julius Caesar" featuring Marianna Bassham, Liz Adams, Marya Lowry, and Bobbie Steinbach. Photo: Maggie Hall.

Caesar is down in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Julius Caesar” featuring Marianna Bassham, Liz Adams, Marya Lowry, and Bobbie Steinbach. Photo: Maggie Hall.

By David Greenham

When you enter the black box space at Studio 210 you are greeted by the pounding/thumping bass of techno music. Look up, and there dangles the tightly wrapped body of Pompeii hanging from a thick chain dropped from the ceiling.  It is obvious that Actors’ Shakespeare Project will be attacking Julius Caesar with plenty of vim and vigor. They will, as Marc Antony (Marianna Bassham) warns, “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”

The company mostly delivers on its promise with a swift and powerful production, which features, at its core, ASP founding members Marya Lowry (Brutus) and Bobbie Steinbach (Cassius).

You know the story, of course, right? At the very least you read that the play was at the center of a noisy controversy early this past summer when New York’s Public Theater chose to portray Caesar in a Trump-like fashion. That production let slip different kinds of dogs of war – the kind that bark a lot about nothing in particular.

The truth is that Julius Caesar is not a play that promotes assassinating unpopular leaders. It’s just the opposite. Caesar is a drama about the ruinous consequences on the social order when jealousy, secret conspiracy, and the naked quest for power are unleashed. ASP neatly lays out the foundations of the political free-for-all in a seamless first act, and grapples mightily with the war that follows during act two.

Like the Public’s production, ASP’s Caesar sports a gimmick; the staging is performed (and staffed) completely by women. There could be more females in most of Shakespeare’s plays, but Caesar is more lopsided than most: there are just two supporting women’s roles. The path chosen by ASP is fun and provocative,  though I’d suggest that the production concept and design ended up making this more of a gender-neutral approach than an ‘all-female” re-visioning. Yes, the Shakespeare purists will bristle that ASP took liberties with the text and made all the gender references female. I had no problem with it. That kind of stuff is a red herring anyway. Did they handle the text well and tell the story clearly? Absolutely.

The production boasts several strong performances. Lowry’s calm and thoughtful Brutus provides a wonderful contrast to Steinbach’s clawing Cassius. Their scenes together strike the right note of simmering ease, a dangerous friendship. Shakespeare’s Act I, scene 2 was also a highlight, when Brutus, Cassius, and MaConnia Chesser’s excellent Casca gather to plan the assassination. It was, to my mind, an almost perfect handling of Shakespeare – clear, simple, and precise.

Liz Adams, with a head of striking blonde hair, brought strength and dignity to Caesar, an interpretation that made the assassination a tougher sell — and thus more intriguing. Bassham applied considerable feistiness to Antony.

Director Bryn Boice manages the pace and flow of Julius Caesar with plenty of splash and dash. The intimate Studio 210 is more of an oval than “in the round,” and after a first act that focused on lateral movement, Boice began experimenting with the space, making skillful use of all the nooks and crannies, especially during the battle scenes in the second half.

The most problematic aspect of the ASP’s Caesar is its production concept. Boice writes that she sees it as a science fiction yarn set in a Rome in an ‘alternate universe.’ The characters are all “feminine,” save for a messenger or two whose faces are covered by masks that suggests the kind of gear in post-apocalyptic films in the Mad Max mode.

Jen Rock’s lighting design projects a murky, moss-covered grid on the stage floor. The suggestion is that the action of the play takes place underground, so there can be very little natural light. There is no “place” to speak of — just a black hole. If the notion is that we’re not supposed to know the where and when of this world, that’s ok. But it’s a shame that, because we are often trying to figure out where in the hell we are, we miss out on the many fine performances, nuanced confrontations, and strong stage pictures. Rebecca Jewett’s non gender specific costumes are all-black, except for Julius Caesar, who is given a flowing gray robe.

There is a stunning moment when a pregnant messenger arrives. It’s a bold and interesting choice, but it was fleeting. Too bad: it was a surprising idea, wasted. And that sums up the staging’s limitation. There is so much that can be played with in the text of Caesar — why get muddled up in a questionable production design choice? In her program notes, Boice writes that “the process has been full of questions we never thought to ask….” I sense that: there are so many ways to see this play through the lens of gender. It would have been exciting to see those opportunities explored more completely.

As it is, and probably as it should be for a group called the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, the performances are the thing. And while there are some less than confident turns in this production, at its core it’s a solid vision of the Bard that serves up “that noble vessel full of grief” that contains (and condemns) Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and all the rest.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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