Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, which originally hails from Grand Haven, Michigan, brings their production of an all-female Julius Caesar to the downtown theater scene in New York. Summer is never a good time to tour New York with Shakespeare because the native offerings are so plentiful. But even in the off-season, this production would not have made the cut.
The production begins with an acoustic, off-pitch version of the Foo Fighter’s “There Goes My Hero,” which is only the first time the cast abuses the band’s music to reinforce the play’s themes. This introduction moves into a dialogue between two cast members under the pretense that they are declaring “new Roman laws,” asking audience members to turn off their cell phones. Instead of being pithy and refreshing, the mini-scene drags on as they describe the “original theatrical practices,” or why their production values are minimal and perfectly mediocre. Half lighting in the house is to recreate the uncontrollable sunlight from the outdoor theater (even though it is an indoor black box); slight costume changes represent different characters because (in case you didn’t know) in the theater, sometimes actors played more than one part; and Elizabethan law prohibited actresses, so they are “role-reversing, sticking-it-to-the-man” with their all-female cast. Although perhaps appropriate for a junior high school assembly about Shakespearean theater, this imposed prologue comes off as condescending and childish for an adult audience. To explain theater often diminishes its luminescence.
Rosalind Srb hopes to disguise the female cast members as men in ill-fitting tunics with ragged hems, apparently made from bed sheets, but they just look like women in homemade, ill-fitting costumes. Maria from “The Sound of Music” did much more tailoring with her curtains. The stark black box could have worked to the company’s advantage, but the sloppy costumes against the bare stage makes it look amateur instead of streamlined, a cost-driven choice instead of an artistic one.
The company completely misses the culture of Rome: the pride of its citizens, the validity of superstitions and soothsayers, the homoeroticism of hyper-masculine friendships, and the distinguished oration that separates Romans from men. Even the Roman cobblers are wordsmiths, as proven in the opening scene, but there is no sparkle to Shakespeare’s words. Alisha Huber’s direction of the text, as disconnected from their bodies, is vacant and dull; I could literally hear the spaces between the beats, as if a classroom were sounding out the iambs.
Huber’s blocking is more miss than hit, glaringly obvious when Emily Decker as the Soothsayer is supposed to emerge from a crowd to caution Caesar on the Ides of March. Instead of being surrounded by bodies, Decker is left in complete open space on stage right while everyone turns to look at her from stage left. Although the plebian crowd scene during the funeral speeches is more effective and uses group movement to create an illusion of more bodies, the first one borders on ridiculous. There are also major moments, like the first dialogue between Brutus and Cassius, during which the characters are completely profile for a significant time, muffling their voices and hiding their faces.
Katherine Mayberry shows no character arc for Cassius; she is not conniving or sneaky, but rather constantly verges on boringly hysterical when trying to convince Brutus to join the faction. Heather Folkvord as Brutus oddly takes on Cassius’s slyness, laughing at awkward moments and looking suspicious at times. It is difficult to believe that such a one-dimensional man could spend sleepless nights thinking about morality, justice, and civil duty, tormented by the thought of killing his ambitious friend.
Kathleen Bode as Caesar is bland with a touch of the right arrogance, but certainly not a charismatic leader for the blind masses. She is more fervent as Cinna the poet, emphasizing the random havoc of the incensed crowd. Marc Antony (Sarah Stark) sports a scrunched brow and a farsighted squint, but Stark’s grumpy facial expressions do nothing to convey Antony’s political acumen or magnetism. Her literal gestures detract from the subtle text, while her unsupported voice is shrill during his riling funeral oration. Folkvord tries to scream over the plebeians to start the proceedings before Stark’s own attempt, but the ensemble raises quite a racket, to their credit.
Casca (Kat Hermes) seems to be the most passionate actor on stage, a great contrast to the often blank faces the others display, but her head ticks that emphasize the verse are often distracting. Arielle Leverett is stronger as Octavius than Calpurnia, more attuned to the ambitious Caesar-to-be than the subtler intentions of a barren, spurned wife.
Ellie Gramer as Portia is a fresh moment, using different vocal levels to express emotion. In a flattering belted toga that contrasts her red locks, she is physically maternal with her Brutus and shows some of Portia’s strength of character. Her double casting as Artemidorus, however, is another unsuccessful moment in the production. To provide time for Gramer’s quick costume change, two other cast members try to rally the audience into a chanting match, pitting “Rome” against “Freedom.” The effort is admirable, but with such a small audience and without enough time to get a strong support going, the time killer flops.
After the assassination and all the talking, there is a civil war that is severely underfunded and understaffed, as rapiers and short knives are used for battle and Antony is his own standard bearer. Folkvord and Mayberry manage to turn the tent scene—a masculine challenge of words that almost ends in blows—into a girly catfight. The fight choreography is dismal and cartoonish, for both the hand-to-hand combat as well as the suicides (spoiler alert: it’s a tragedy; a lot of people will die). Mayberry preemptively covers her face with a flag for her suicide, again muffling her lines, and later, other people die too, but nothing is remarkable enough to note. Unfortunately for Pigeon Creek, they cannot stand up to the other Shakespeare productions New York is offering this summer.