Last night, Staff Writer and avid Shakespearian-theatergoer Paola Ripoll took a few hours out of her Thursday night to take in the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s production of “Julius Caesar.” Here are her thoughts on last night’s performance of the bloody fall of Caesar and Rome. (Content warning: this play does contain fake blood and depictions of violence/murder, and as such, this review addresses those topics.)
In the opening night of its three night run of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” KCST brought to life a tragedy that recounts not just the tragic downfall of Caesar himself, but that of Brutus, the man who struggles between his love for Caesar and his love for Rome. For those wholly unaware of the plot, the play begins with the Roman people celebrating the triumph of Caesar over the sons of Pompey in battle. That the Roman people love Caesar and that certain people, like Mark Antony, would see him crowned king, is all too apparent to Cassius, who begins to organize a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Cassius manages to convince Brutus, a long-time friend of Caesar, to join the conspiracy, and although he is hesitant, Brutus decides that absolute power corrupts, and that kingship would turn his friend into a tyrant against the Roman people who’d undo the centuries of republicanism in Rome. After the assassination on the fated Ides of March, neither Rome nor Brutus are not free from turmoil: a new Caesar — Octavius — has joined forces with Mark Antony to create a new triumvirate to rule Rome, and Brutus, fighting alongside Cassius, is haunted by his guilt and Caesar’s ghost.
Considering that the story of Caesar is roughly two thousand years old, and the Bard’s play has been enacted and reenacted countless times in the nearly four hundred years since his death, it is no easy task to present Julius Caesar in a way that is unique and novel for its audience. KCST’s rendition seeks to present the story in that new light by adapting the play in an anachronistic matter, to remind the audience that, as director Zachary Flick (CC ‘17) states in the play’s program, “past and present exist simultaneously.” KCST’s Julius Caesar has many ways of showing this marriage of different time periods, namely through costuming and the use of voice-overs. The play begins with an add-on scene, in which Caesar (Carolyn Kegel, CC ‘17), stands before the audience as a multitude of recorded voices bombard and overwhelm the audience, nothing truly distinct other than John F. Kennedy’s words to the United Nations: “mankind should put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” That KCST wants to draw the politics of Rome, all in shambles, in relation to our own world’s current state of affairs is unmistakable, yet the voice-overs are more effective when they are used to emphasize the mental deterioration of Brutus. Replaying the words of Cassius, Caesar, and Brutus prior to the assassination as Brutus (Isabel Daly, BC ‘19), paces the stage, mid-mental breakdown, is a much more poignant scene than the added-on prologue.
Costuming is also a crucial part of this rendition of Julius Caesar. The costumes are an amalgamation of various time periods: Brutus wears a simplistic tunic under a contemporary black coat, Mark Antony is dressed a pair of suspenders, Octavius has on a long coat with a baroque-like pattern, and Caesar sports a Roman-style updo and coin necklace, juxtaposed with a sleek black jumpsuit for the latter part of the play. Though the audience knows fully well that the setting is Rome in the 40s B.C, the costumes suggest otherwise, their style unable to be pinpointed to a specific time period. This subtly suggests to the audience that the world of Shakespeare’s Rome is able to travel through time and be applicable to any society, at any point in history.
In KCST’s “Julius Caesar,” makeup is applied with a heavy hand, intended to denote character traits or accentuate some feature. Cassius’s (Molly Lo Re, BC ‘17) heavy eyeliner, strong black eyebrows, and black lipstick highlight her dark and vengeful facial expressions beautifully. Brutus’ subdued makeup makes her stand out from all the other Romans and their gaudy makeup, suggesting a nobility of character that is fitting for one who consistent puts the needs of Rome (or at least, what she believes to be the needs of Rome) before her own material gains. But other than those two instances, the use of makeup feels gaudy to the point of excess; Calpurnia has drawn-on tears, perhaps to foreshadow her sorrow after the death of Caesar, which comes off as dramatic in the wrong sense. Similarly, Octavius has gold glitter all over his nose and cheekbones, making him seem like a wannabe boy-king and undermining his position as the shrewd politician who tricked the Roman Senate, despite their reluctance, into naming him Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
Another way in which KCST gives a spin to the Bard’s play is by having Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and the other conspirators (Casca, Cinna, and Decius Brutus) be women, a distinction from simply being played by women. The use of women in real positions of power is another nod to the ambiguity of time period that the play has already established, and is a subversion of the original Shakespearean play, which has a majority male cast and was, in Elizabethan times, played by an entirely male troupe. The first half of the play, which consists of Acts I-III, is very woman-heavy; Rome is ruled by the female Caesar, the conspirators who plan to “free” Rome and prevent her crowning are all women. The scene between Brutus, struggling to balance her sense of honor, her friendship with Caesar, and her love of country, and Portia (Rachel Kastner, BC ‘19), wanting to make sense of the turmoil she senses in both her wife and her country, is, in my opinion, the most moving scene in the entire play because it provides a new layer of emotion through the unique approach to the relationship.
Another highlight of the play was Caesar’s lengthy and gory assassination scene. Caesar is given no mercy, her body stabbed various times and dragged throughout the coliseum floor, her white dress stained with blood. Cassius, Casca (Carys Snyder, CC ’19), Metellus Cimber (Riva Weinstein, BC ’20), and Decius Brutus (Yaël Cohen, CC’19) had no qualms about holding back, and those sitting in the front row (such as yours truly) got fake blood splatters all over them. This rendition of Julius Caesar is definitely not for the faint of heart, and the second half, which consists of Acts IV and V, has even more bloodshed and violence. My only complaint is that KCST, which did death so well and got perhaps a little too trigger happy, deviated from the original work and had Calpurnia gratuitously killed off. Her death did nothing to advance the plot and wasn’t particularly justified outside of simply having yet another death scene.
Ultimately, with flaws only few and far between, KCST put on a truly memorable show. The actors were all impressive: Kegel’s Caesar was stately and commanding, Daly’s Brutus conveyed her character’s tragic internal struggle beautifully, and Lo Re’s Cassius is terrifying and captivating in her rage and madness. If you like murder, politics, and overall insanity, KCST’s Julius Caesar is for you.
The play runs tonight and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are sold out for both nights, but the waitlist opens at 7:15 each night at the Glicker-Milstein Theater.
Photo via KCST’s Facebook