The downside of repertory productions at Great Lakes Theater is half-expecting the angry mob in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” who alternately perform in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” on the same stage, to break into a roaring rendition of “Shipoopi” during Mark Antony’s proclamation of coming to bury Caesar, not praise him.
That is the only downside, for the theatrical transformation from sunny River City, Iowa in 1912 to a problematic Rome, Italy in 44 BCE – where the trouble that rhymed with “P” and stood for pool now stands for persecution and political conspiracy – is a complete one.
As have past Great Lakes productions of this history play, this one transfigures the time and context in which the drama unfolds. But the makeover is marginal compared to more radical productions elsewhere, such as the one performed at Central Park’s Public Theater where a contemporary Caesar bears a blond comb-over and red tie, or the one produced by THIRTEEN Productions for PBS that is set in a prison with an all-female cast, or the one by the Royal Shakespeare Company with an all African-born ensemble that likened Caesar to dictator Robert Mugabe.
Here, director Sara Bruner shares a similar inclination for mixing things up in this tale about a celebrated politician and his best friend, Brutus, who must choose between loyalty to his comrade or his country. But her touch and her intentions are more subtle though the results are no less dramatic.
Her production – staged with abstract and metallic scenic design and plenty of looming mist (Russell Metheny), framed in lighting and sound that alternates between jarring and ethereal (Rick Martin and Matthew Webb, respectively) and draped in a discordant blend of contemporary and classic costuming (Leah Piehl) – appears to be set in a near-future post-apocalyptic time. And a handful of typically male roles, including Caesar (Carole Healey), Cassius (Laura Welsh Berg) and Trebonius (Jessie Cope Miller), are played by women. And they are played exceptionally well.
Bruner has created a forum for the pressing issue of women and political ambition without rubbing our noses in it. And her handiwork never detracts from what Shakespeare brings to the table, albeit in an abbreviated two and a half hour format.
The play remains the thing from beginning to end and the company’s veteran performers (particularly Lynn Robert Berg as Brutus, Nick Steen as Mark Antony, Jodi Dominick as the doomsday Soothsayer, and David Anthony Smith as Decius Brutus) as well as newer members of the ensemble (including Alex Syiek as Casca and Jahir Hopes as Lucius) are superb. They never fail to deliver richly drawn characters or find that elusive place where Shakespeare’s words organically exist in our world.
“Julius Caesar” is certainly a play for the ages but it always seems to resonate most, as it resonates now, when politicians have lean and hungry looks (Act 1 Scene 2) and cowards who die many times before their deaths (Act 2 Scene 2) abound. Still, Shakespeare purists will have much to complain about when seeing this production, with its gender bending, contemporary staging and abbreviated text.
Thank goodness there’s “The Music Man,” which is being given as traditional a staging as one can imagine and where it’s said that cowards die a thousand deaths but the brave man... only 500 (Act 2 Scene 1).