Julius Caesar may be the perfect parable for our time. Never in the history of mankind have so many leaders, dictators, and wannabe kings been deposed by the rabble or betrayed by their countrymen. And never before has the throne seemed more precarious.
Heck, even the governor of Wisconsin has angry mobs calling for his head.
So it makes perfect sense for the Guthrie, in the fourth year of its partnership with Actors Theatre, to stage Shakespeare’s JC as a coat-and-tie affair, in a modern metropolis, with the streets full of hippies and hip-hoppers trying to make sense of the bizarre drama being played out by their leaders.
The play begins with a bank of video monitors featuring every talking head in the business—Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Erin Burnett, Rachel Maddow, etc.—all mouthing in ultra-slow-motion the daily wave of misinformation and speculation we continue to call “the news.” As the heads dissolve into TV snow, in walks Caesar and his cabinet. And, because Caesar is cast as a tall, lanky black man, the Obama inference is a bit too obvious. But it fits, sort of. Like Caesar, Obama rose to power on a tide of public goodwill; like Caesar, there were many in government who doubted Obama’s leadership abilities; and now that Obama’s first term has failed to live up to the messianic hype, there are plenty of people who—for the good of the country, you understand, not their own glory—want to take Obama down.
Luckily, we have elections in order to avoid the sort of messy coup d’etat depicted in Julius Caesar. But the principle is the same. And while it takes a few minutes to get used to hearing the King’s English flowing from men in tailored suits, this interpretation works surprisingly well. Caesar’s cabinet is particularly well cast, with Sid Solomon as an efficiently scheming Cassius, Kevin Orton as an amusing, supercilious Casca, and Zachary Fine as the honorable Mark Antony (his speech eulogy to Caesar smolders and catches fire with just the right heat and intensity). And as Brutus, the true main character of the play, William Sturdivant carries the yoke of leadership with a nice balance of fear and hubris.
At the Guthrie, Shakespeare usually commands one of the big stages, but this time out it’s being performed in the Dowling Studio, which gives the action a compelling immediacy. It also allows the actors to add more nuance to their dialogue (since they don’t have to shout to be heard), giving them more dynamic range. Mark Antony’s speech is a perfect example: it starts low and slow, then builds to an impassioned crescendo that’s all the more powerful because it started so quietly.
The modernistic setting serves the play well too, except for the “Et tu, Brute” scene, which ends up looking like a Sociopaths Anonymous meeting. True, it’s hard to know how to react when everyone in the boardroom suddenly ups and stabs the CEO—but still. After the deed is done here, these assassins all have that half-glazed/half-bored look in their eye, as if they’ve just come out of a long PowerPoint presentation. Then again, all they are really doing is acting out the fantasies of every underappreciated VP in America. True leadership is a commodity in short supply these days, but the business of second-guessing leaders is booming like never before.
All in all, this take on Julius Caesar is a refreshing reminder that power struggles at the top always have some cloak-and-dagger in them. One of the best things about the play is how frequently everyone misreads the signs of fate and destiny—a reminder that leaders who are too certain of themselves, or who claim an especially privileged relationship with the Almighty, are not to be trusted. That’s a good thing to keep in mind during an election year, when candidates seem willing to say or do anything to prove they are not just people who crave power. Most of us sit in the cheap seats to watch this political drama unfold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t see what’s going on, or take to the streets when the story being told is too tragic to bear.
Julius Caesar continues at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through Feb. 5.