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Ambition to be Glanced at in PSF’s Julius Caesar Hot

Jennifer Kramer
Written by Jennifer Kramer     June 27, 2016    
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Ambition to be Glanced at in PSF’s Julius Caesar

Photos: Lee A. Butz

  • Julius Caesar
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
  • June 22 to July 17
Acting 4
Costumes 3
Sets 5
Directing 4
Overall 4

“Great playwrights don’t preach,” says Patrick Mulcahy, producing artistic director of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and director of their production of Julius Caesar. “Often through immersion in ambiguity and paradox, they illuminate truths about our being that transcend binary considerations of right and wrong.” This ethos very clearly informs the production; whether or not the result is transcendent is much less clear.

Scenic and lighting designer Steve TenEyck’s set is the most successful representation of ambiguity and paradox. Following Mulcahy’s vision of a production “highlight[ing] elements of past, present, and imagined future,” the set echoes the design of classical architecture with a looming colonnade and podium. These stand over the Elizabethan thrust stage, and the unrelieved white color echoes the neoclassical vision of Greece and Rome (whose brightly painted surfaces were lost to time and over-zealous restorers). Meanwhile, the strict geometric design (square piers instead of round columns; furniture composed entirely of straight lines) and material (shiny plastic) are most definitely modern, and call upon the conception of “futuristic” — particularly in combination with the technology incorporated into its design, through lights that provide dramatically colored backlighting and shadows during scene breaks.

Marla Jurglanis’ costume design attempts a similar blending of time periods, though not quite as successfully. Between the near-universal adoption of combat boots, the pleather coats of war, and the Roman mob’s hoodies and skinny jeans and ripped fishnets, there’s a distinct flavor of future dystopia via Hot Topic circa 2002. The color palette is very subdued. Caesar’s banner and sweater are red and his mantle bronze, whereas Brutus and his faction favor the shades of gray-blue up to navy, but these are sparing accents to overwhelming gray and black — perhaps too sparing, as the parade of minor characters in the final battle scenes of the play could have used more visual indications of their allegiances. Stoles worn like sashes, draped around the neck, or originating from suit pockets and wrapping around the shoulders offer a compact modernization of the senators’ togas. Interestingly, only Portia and Calpurnia have gained the purple: they wear modern evening gowns in shades of plum and aubergine, accented with flowing floor-length vests or housecoats. Instead of three-piece suits, sport coats are worn with shawl neck sweaters and fatigues; along with multiple layers toques are also popular, giving the impression that this Rome is very chilly.

The cast adopts a faintly declamatory style that sometimes seems at odds with Mulcahy’s vision of an intimate production and makes several flubbed lines more noticeable. The play arrests the audience’s attention with the revels of a bellowing mob — a recurring theme — and the indignant posturing of Flavius and Marullus (James “Bo” Sayre and Jacob Dresch respectively). By contrast, the first appearances of Brutus (Henry Woronicz) and Caesar (Keith Hamilton Cobb) seem almost underwhelming, unbalancing the production’s beginning.

Both actors, however, increase in stage presence as the play progresses. Woronicz plays Brutus as a kindly old man, fond of his friends and solicitous of his wife and servants, eventually revealing the grim determination that apparently propelled him to assassination and civil war. Cobb, meanwhile, portrays a demagogue whose larger-than-life antics nevertheless seem genuine, giving even outrageous proclamations like “danger knows full well / that Caesar is more dangerous than he” a confident sincerity. Cobb extends this sincerity to Caesar’s relationships as well: he is openly affectionate, tussling with his wife and greeting his friends with hearty back slaps, and displays a distinct fondness for sweeping people off their feet with bear hugs — friendly for his allies, crushing for his assassins.

Rosalyn Coleman as Calpurnia gives gravitas to a minor role as a classic politician’s wife: the seriousness with which she and Beth Egan (as Caesar’s servant) treat her troubled dreams give them a religious conviction in keeping with Roman cultural mores. Greg Wood (Cassius) and Christopher Patrick Mullen (Casca) attract attention among the conspirators with their sharply-defined personalities: the former passionate, the latter sardonic. Spencer Plachy gives a standout performance as Marc Antony, transforming him from an amiable party boy stumbling onstage still trying to put his shoes on, to the impassioned orator devastatingly manipulating the mob into a frenzy with copious amounts of fervor and spittle — a transformation that is electrifying but never abrupt.

Mulcahy keeps the pace steady, and the first half of the production ends on a strong note. Throughout the play, the passions of the common Romans have been consistently emphasized, with their celebrations, mourning, and righteous indignation expressed at top volume by the ensemble. Goaded on by Antony’s eulogy, they prowl through the streets of Rome seeking violence. It is dealt out with chilling deliberation to the somewhat obnoxious — though still blameless — Cinna the poet, and the production seems poised to use this juxtaposition of order versus chaos — the prevention of tyranny versus the promulgation of anarchy — as one of Mulcahy’s examples of “ambiguity and paradox”. Unfortunately, this is completely dropped in the second half of the production. Nearly all scenes of violence feature the conspirators’ faction only, in one-sided stylized slow-mo; while this makes sense from a practical standpoint, given the decidedly lackluster man-to-man combat during Caesar’s assassination, it loses the visceral sense of the violent fallout from Brutus and Antony’s schemes.

The metatextual implications of the casting suffer a similar problem. The conspirators appear to be uniformly white men, mostly older, while Caesar and his supporters include women, people of color, and the young. Identification with the fight against the entrenched power structures of modern society, or with the generational divide that fuels everything from thinkpieces about Millennials to the sharply divided demographics of the Brexit, seems almost inevitable. Yet the production’s take on this remains unsettled; the ambiguity that arises is not the result of the complexity of human nature, but of unclear implications that fizzle out without any supporting commentary from the play.

However, the production is not without its successes: the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Julius Caesar is a solid showing overall with many enjoyable moments, and like Caesar himself fortunate, valiant, and ambitious. Whether or not it can survive its own standards is the ultimate ambiguity and paradox left to the audience.

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