Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has been in the news lately, due to that kerfuffle (or is it covfefe?) around the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production earlier this summer, which depicted the titular Roman ruler as President Trump. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s Caesar is nowhere near so controversial, yet manages to prove the continued relevance of the 400-year-old play in spite of the traditional setting.
Director Anthony Powell takes a fairly traditional approach to Caesar, setting the play in Ancient Rome. The costumes consist entirely of tunics, togas, and sandals — with the exception of the plebeians in the first scene. The show opens with a carpenter and cobbler, in modern dress, approaching from the audience to address Roman soldiers, who are trying to calm their celebrations. As the scene progresses, more audience members, many holding beers or other adult beverages, stand and begin to contribute shouts of “Hail, Caesar!” They pop up like Whack-a-Moles, leading the audience to distrust even their neighbor’s identity, lest they be a secret Roman. While clever and funny, the message is clear — we, the audience, are Rome, and this is only the first time we realize that fact.
The set is simple and minimalist, a blank gray slate which can become a bright Roman parlor, where conspirators plan late into the night; a dark, apocryphal storm; the Capitol on the Ides of March; a bloody battlefield bathed in red; and a star-filled night sky at the end of the play. The technical effects, which include impressively atmospheric light and sound cues, do the heavy lifting here, and do it well.
As always, the actors are on point. Robert Sicular is good as a pompous but unaware Caesar. His decision (later changed) to stay in on the fateful day to ease the fears of his worried wife, Calpurnia (Shelly Gaza), gives us a glimpse of his gentler private side; his only crimes seem to be arrogance (but who in this play isn’t?) and trusting his political “allies” a bit too much. The audience never sees the ambitious monster the conspirators fear.
Scott Coopwood’s Brutus comes across as honorable but fatally naive. While his inner struggle is obvious, he seems almost too easily swayed by the words of Cassius and the other conspirators. In fact, he feels more like Othello, if the Moor’s fatal flaw was optimistic patriotism rather than jealousy. But perhaps that is a result of Matthew Schneck’s delightfully manipulative Cassius — his ambiguous motives (an implication that his concerns about Caesar may be more personal than he lets on), the way he so clearly pulls the strings of all the conspirators, and his patient erosion of even Brutus’s objections evoke Iago in the best ways. It’s difficult not to root for him, if only to see his well-laid plans come to fruition, and especially right after the assassination, when Brutus insists on allowing Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Schneck’s delivery of the simple line, “Brutus, a word with you” has the audience laughing, but anyone who knows how the next act plays out wants to shake Brutus and yell, “Listen to Cassius!” Coopwood and Schneck’s chemistry, first apparent in CSF’s production of Taming (as Petruchio and Grumio, respectively), makes the conspirator scenes riveting and elevates an otherwise forgettable scene in Act 4: Brutus and Cassius, neck-deep in war, argue heatedly, hurl painful accusations, apologize, and eventually make up like the bros they are. The raw intensity of emotion and utter reality of the scene is breathtaking.
By far the most memorable scene is, of course, Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Christopher Joel Onken, who played the one-dimensional Lucentio in Taming, gets to show off his chops here. He first enters, upon Caesar’s call, by performing a cartwheel and coming up, hands on hips, half his chest bared and far too much leg showing in his very short tunic. (Costume Designer Clare Henkel should get kudos for that inspired design alone.) His public persona prior to Caesar’s assassination is one of exuberant youth and braggadocio, which makes his transformation after all the more fascinating, akin to Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henriad, and his private grief and oath of vengeance over Caesar’s body is both revealing and touching. Powell has both Brutus and Antony speak on platforms in the audience, again clearly signifying that we, the audience, are the people. But while Coopwood’s Brutus is wonderfully reserved and reasonable, Onken nails the gentle, faux-humble “lend me your ears,” the intensifying snark of “Brutus is an honorable man,” and the proud knowledge of just what he’s unleashed by the end. The audience, although we are the Roman people, are also just removed enough to recognize in Antony’s speech the type of rhetoric politicians have used for 2000 years to convince people to rally to a cause.
In spite of its well-known outcome, Powell manages to make the scene of Caesar’s assassination tense and suspenseful through a brilliant combination of ominous light cues, intense music, and blocking — the conspirators raise their knives only to hide them again, and their circle increasingly tightens as they get closer to taking that final step. When they do, the result is a manic bloodlust as Caesar bounces from knife to knife, ending up covered in blood, which literally drips down the steps of the Capitol. Only Brutus’s levelheadedness keeps them from massacring everyone from servants to Antony afterward. I was surprised to find my heart pounding and a ball of anxiety in my stomach throughout the entire scene, even though I knew full-well what would happen.
Powell’s direction excels in two other areas. The first is the fight choreography, for which credit should also go to Christopher DuVal, the Fight Director — on a stage reddened by the lights, actors fight in a stylized group dance, first against one opponent and then to another, no fights or characters highlighted. Just one big fog of war. The second is the ability to highlight minor characters without distracting. Most of the conspirators were distinguishable from one another, each having their own business even when not speaking — Casca (Casey Andree) was delightfully gossipy, and his scene with Brutus and Cassius describing Caesar being offered the crowd felt almost like watching modern-day middle schoolers gossip, not Roman senators discuss politics. Anne Penner induced chills with the Soothsayer’s few lines, and Ian Roy Fraser, as Brutus’s servant Lucius, was a joy to watch as he kept attempting to stay and listen in on the conspirators’ conversations.
CSF’s Julius Caesar proves that controversy isn’t needed for relevance — 400 years later, Shakespeare’s words continue to ring true.
Correction (7/27/17): The costume designer's name was incorrectly stated. The correct name has been updated.