The midterm election is over, tribalism divides the country, and Congress has never been less productive. Cynicism over politics is high, which is precisely why The Folger Theater began its season with a production of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s slice of tragic history is weirder than his other plays – its hero dies in the middle of it, for one thing – but its themes resonate because, well, we haven’t gotten much better than the way things were during his day. Director Robert Richmond’s production is dark and moody, a ghost of politics’ ugly past, and the cumulative effect does not exactly make us feel better. Instead, Richmond’s heightens the play’s misguided morality and uncomfortable gender roles, borrowing horror imagery until the play feels like nothing less than a dire warning.
The bizarre opening sequences has influences from Guillermo Del Toro and Victorian horror. The actors wander the stage menacingly, and we cannot see their faces because long hoods obscure them. They sound like wounded apparitions, so the soothsayer’s inevitable Ides of March warning is not out of place. This Julius Caesar has a lot of fake blood, whether it’s symbolic or grotesque, and each corpse represents another misguided attempt at leadership.
Against this horror backdrop, the characters fight about power and the nobility of death. Cassius (Louis Butelli) and Casca (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) lead the conspiracy against Caesar (Michael Sharon), who barks through Rome’s hallways like an entitled demigod. Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) is more reluctant to come on board, so Cassius tricks Brutus into thinking he’s a populist instrument for the Roman people. The assassination scene is ugly and violent*, with Caesar defending himself before the deathblow, and the aftermath is all about spin control. Brutus argues the death was meant to counteract Caesar’s encroaching tyranny, while Mark Antony (Maurice Jones) sees an opportunity for a bloody revolution. And with wartime costumes that borrow from World War I, there is little honor in Richmond’s stage depiction of Total War.
Thanks to Richmond’s direction and distinct non-verbal acting among the actors, it’s easy to see how their perspectives and attitudes differ. Cassius is the sinewy schemer, a deeply angry man who views every disagreement as an affront to his character. Butelli plays him like a manipulative enabler, the sort who cannot see his self-deception. Cochrane is Butelli’s physical and emotional opposite: his Brutus is open-faced and funny, the sort of man who leads through smiles and simple, direct rhetoric. His funeral speech is a mix of nationalism and cognitive dissonance, a misguided rationalization from a dangerous pulpit. It’s to Cochrane’s credit that we can hear the regret hang over every word about his fallen friend.
Richmond has a complicated opinion of his characters, who veer between aggrandizement and self-pity, although he saves his most pointed commentary for how Brutus and Caesar speak to their respective wives. Brutus’ wife Portia (Shirine Babb) is hysterical and self-deluded, a woman who’s weighed down by her subservient role. Babb plays up Portia’s histrionics, showing us how Shakespeare’s dialogue is not always so modern, and her performance also disabuses us from Brutus’ attempt at virtue. As Caesar’s wife Calphurnia, Deidra LaWan Starnes’ role is more straightforward (i.e. she listens to the soothsayer, while Caesar does not). If Richmond sees Roman politics as a horror show, then Starnes is one of the few who has any self-awareness about it.
Although Mark Antony is opportunistic like the conspirators against Caesar – instead of a knife, he wields Caesar’s will – his blistering elegy works because he combines genuine grief with moral fury. Maurice Jones plays Antony as a young man who rises to the occasion, unlike Brutus and especially Cassius who bring the milieu down to their dirty level. There’s bile and grief in his long speech, a stirring reminder of how at his best, Shakespeare can capture the dueling perspectives that can be found in everyone, not just politicians. It is so easy to be tired of the Washington in the book “This Town.” It’s easy to disengage, whether it’s through apathy, mean-spirited jokes, or cynicism. Richmond’s Julius Caesar is a stirring reason to end your disillusionment and vote, for an easily-swayed mob is the only thing between us and a frightening political horror-scape.
* At the performance I saw, there was a man in the audience who loudly muttered, “E tu, Brute?” immediately before the actor playing Caesar had a chance to say it. I think I speak for the actors, the production team, and the audience when I say, “What is wrong with you? Do not speak, ever, during a live theater performance.” No, seriously, fuck off.
Julius Caesar is at The Folger Theater until December 7th. Buy tickets here!