- Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Friends, Northeast Ohioans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Many avoid Shakespeare, thinking the script and language will be too complicated to follow. This is never the case with Great Lakes Theater.
When Shakespeare is produced correctly, as it is in GLT’s Julius Caesar, the characters, their intentions and the plot lines are not only easy to understand, they are also intriguing, lyrically beautiful and relevant.
William Shakespeare’s historic tragedy begins when Julius Caesar returns from a victorious battle and is heralded by the people as a hero. In this production, Julius Caesar is played by a woman. Her close friend, Mark Antony, offers her the crown of Rome, which she denies. However, the thought of seeing Caesar in power threatens Cassius, who convinces others that Caesar will destroy democracy if in power. One of those she convinces is Brutus, who, while a friend of Caesar, determines that doing what’s best for Rome means taking drastic, murderous actions.
Julius Caesar is a tale that warns of the fragility of democracy and the dangers of tyranny. It was originally performed in 1599 London, a time where the succession of the throne was in question. Because of its timely performance in relation to the political turmoil occurring in England, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a play based in ancient Rome, is commonly thought to have been written to subtly represent the political climate of the times.
Julius Caesar continues to be produced in ways that reflect the world around us. This has been accomplished by setting the play during modern times and dressing the characters to look like our current political players. In GLT’s production of the show in 1970, some of the characters were portrayed as hippies, while in 2004, the show was dressed to represent the conflicts in Iraq.
Director Sara Bruner has gone another route. In this production, both the time and setting are vague. Russell Metheny’s set design features four cage-like, Roman-inspired columns that are backed by a sheet metal wall. The industrial design suggests a post-apocalyptic setting that is open to interpretation.
Leah Piehl’s costuming reflects this, as it is a combination of traditional Roman clothing and modern-day garb. Senators wear draped togas and boots or shiny, black dress shoes, while soldiers are adorned in Roman breast plates in addition to more modern military jackets.
All of the creative elements are beautiful, including the vibrant, colorful lighting designed by Rick Martin and the ghostly, foreboding sound design by Matthew Webb. And while these elements don’t make direct ties to today’s political happenings, Bruner’s Julius Caesar reflects back on modern times in a subtle, indirect way that doesn’t distract from the original work—through her gender-altering casting. She has placed the talented Carole Healey in the titular role and cast the wonderful M.A. Taylor as her husband.
Healey plays the character as any man would—with a striking sense of authority and egotistical tendencies. She is a self-assured force who feels at home in her powerful position. It’s refreshing that, while Caesar is played by a woman, that isn’t the defining characteristic of the character. Instead, it’s a normalization of women in politics.
This idea is further conveyed by the casting of Laura Welsh Berg as the ambitious Cassius. Laura Welsh Berg is striking with her short, burgundy hair and mastery of manipulative dialogue. So, not only do men question the role and suitability of women in leadership, but it’s also being questioned by fellow women.
Cassius gathers a group of conspirators against Caesar, including the humorous Casca, played by the delightful Alex Syiek. Other conspirators are well-played by David Anthony Smith, Marcus Martin, Mack Shirilla and Jessie Cope Miller.
Lynn Robert Berg plays the honorable Brutus. He has a strong presence on stage, with an adept ability to express both a judicial tone and feelings of self-doubt. It’s fascinating to watch this conflicted character unfold under Lynn Robert Berg’s practiced telling. Likewise, Brutus’ relationship with his doting wife, Portia, played by the emotional Jillian Kates, is quite passionate and moving.
When it comes to Shakespeare, you can trust that GLT’s classic company will deliver the Bard’s words deftly, finely translating a hundreds-year-old script to audiences using inflections of the voice, changes in posture and, of course, emotion.
This is especially true for Nick Steen as Mark Antony. Antony’s famous speech where he speaks about Caesar’s inherent goodness and riles the people of Rome against the establishment is incredibly powerful when delivered by Steen. His character is sweet and seemingly sincere, yet effectively manipulative.
One of the main themes to this play is that the means don’t always justify the ends. In GLT’s Julius Caesar, the means of the production — the apocalyptic setting, the modern Rome-inspired garb and the gender-altering casting — certainly justify the ends, which is a fantastically rendered political tragedy.
Where: Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, 2067 East 14th St., Cleveland, OH 44115
When: Through Nov. 3
Tickets: $15-80, call 216.241.6000 or visit greatlakestheater.org