A political leader is both a person and a symbol. Observers will fill that vessel with meaning, often projecting their own highest hopes or greatest fears on a ruler. In Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare looks at the private sides of public men, examining their motives for seizing political power and the fragility of government itself. The Vermont Shakespeare Festival production uses bold staging to portray four quintessential politicians.
In 45 BC, Julius Caesar, whose conquests have won over the people of Rome, stands at his peak, apparently still content to share power with the Roman senate but capable of assuming the role of a dictator. Mark Antony has such single-minded commitment to his political goals that he'll use any means necessary to achieve them. Cassius, the smart realist, has put aside illusions, and hope itself, to let pragmatism steer him. And Marcus Brutus, the idealist who envisions a noble government, compromises his honor to stop what he fears Caesar will become.
The play is about the impact of events on a large populace, and, to create that scale, director Jena Necrason employs imaginative theatrical staging. She moves all the characters forcefully and tricks the audience into seeing a six-actor ensemble as a citizen mob or a vast army by shifting them in swirls and eddies that seem to magnify their numbers.
The events that animate these hordes result from individuals wrestling with each other or their scruples. Cassius leads a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, and shares his rationalization with Brutus during a ferocious and foreboding storm. Necrason keeps an apocalyptic tempest pulsing through sound and lighting effects, while the characters engage in dark scenes of persuasion and internal reflection.
The bloody deed and its immediate aftermath receive a formal, stylized presentation in this production. Suspense is never the point, only intensity, and, as Caesar falls amid slow, choreographed dagger stabs, the actors make the killing a ritual more than a murder.
The conspirators have not thought past this moment, and Caesar's ally, Antony, steeps himself in plans for vengeance on the killers. For the funeral speeches, Necrason places Brutus and Antony high above a rabid crowd that switches its allegiance under the power of each orator.
Rome before Caesar was in turmoil, and, after his death, it's in civil war. A triumvirate of Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus governs, with predictable infighting. All that keeps them together is a common enemy, as Cassius and Brutus have raised armies in hopes of reestablishing a Roman republic. The true victims of the tragedy, Cassius and Brutus, will die in the chaos they've unleashed.
In this skillful staging, a mere 14 actors play all 35 speaking roles, and women take on several male parts, including those of Brutus and Antony. Each performer understands Shakespeare's language keenly enough to deliver the meaning to an audience with insight and clarity.
Christina Delaine gives Brutus a male swagger and has a vocal register deep enough to help the audience forget about the gender switch. Delaine's best work comes in a hot-tempered quarrel with Cassius on the eve of battle. In a play that largely consists of cold ideas, this humanizing occasion for anger and reconciliation releases real heat.
Wayne Tetrick, as Cassius, has a dignified bearing and superb concentration on his scene partners. Tetrick's diction and emotional range are impressive, and he hits the bull's-eye of Cassius' envy of Caesar. Focused more on Cassius' cunning than on his desperate hunger for power, Tetrick's performance is deliberately reserved.
Paul Ugalde makes Caesar regal, fully comfortable with power. This Caesar is no longer the gritty commander of armies but an assured political animal.
Maggie McDowell emphasizes Antony's youthful energy, the qualities that the conspirators use to belittle him as a carouser. In the funeral speech, McDowell wisely starts without sarcasm and waits for the Roman crowd to be drawn in, then takes firm hold to turn them against the conspirators.
Garrett Kimberly and Mark Roberts both handle multiple roles, distinguishing their characters with physical and interpretive precision. Ceara Ledwith plays Portia, Brutus' wife, with a chilling mix of fatalism and desperation. As Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, Veronica Lopez is earthy and direct.
Necrason stages the play in the round and frequently moves the characters in circular patterns, hinting at an endless cycle of changing political power. Platforms with Roman banners are set at four points around the stage's circle. Geometrical movement for the stylized formality of public life contrasts with the realistic emotion of private exchanges.
Presenting a play in the round has risks and rewards. It's easy for spectators to be conscious of the audience beyond the actors or to be taken out of the play by a poor vantage point. Necrason frequently repositions the actors to compensate, but that tactic can sometimes entail motion for motion's sake, undercutting the natural build in a scene. When the show moves to the University of Vermont's Royall Tyler Theatre this week, the audience's high angle on the stage will reduce distractions that arose in the open-air staging at Shelburne Museum.
The rewards of a play in the round include a sense of participating in an event, and the novelty of immersion. We experience the latter when Necrason positions soldiers at a distance from the stage, letting their cries enlarge the field of action and engulf the audience.
Producing the play in 2016 gives viewers a chance to look for parallels to this election season. Don't look to Shakespeare to validate contemporary opinions. His views probably differed sharply from the American impulse to oppose any potential for tyranny. By 1599, when the play was written, the pope had declared Elizabeth I an illegitimate queen, and her secret service had foiled multiple Catholic conspiracies to murder her. Shakespeare, who flourished under Elizabeth's patronage, by no means equated all monarchs with tyrants, and the Elizabethans in general prized the maintenance of social order over upheaval.
Each viewer brings his or her own perspective to this story of a Roman political assassination, easily manipulated crowds and statesmen who can make ends justify the means. Shakespeare presents the bloody facts and tortured logic, and this production gives them vigorous life.