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Theater Review: Julius Caesar

Set in Ancient Rome in 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar is a tragedy written by  William Shakespeare. The play depicts Rome as plagued by civil war and infighting between ambitious military leaders. The play explores betrayal, power struggles and politics.

It is 2017. Does Julius Caesar hold contemporary relevance? The Dramat’s second fall production, directed by Carrie Mannino, attempts to modify the play to address modern-day American politics. Shakespeare’s dialogue is untouched, but Caesar’s gender has been swapped from male to female. Because of the gender change, the entire play’s dynamic is positively transformed: audience members are made aware of prevailing biases against women in politics.  

The stage and costumes are as described in the original play. The set comprises a simple white platform with a few classic Roman stone columns upright in the backdrop. Such a minimalist set prevents distraction and allows us to focus our attention on the characters and their actions. The physical distance between the actors and the audience is also at a minimum. The seats surround the stage in a small room, and viewers are few in number. This creates an intimate setting, and from the start and compels the audience to be active viewers of the play.

Julius Caesar begins with two tribunes entering a Roman street and observing the behavior of the commoners. Audience members discover that the exhilaration visible on the Roman street is due to Caesar’s victory in Pompeii.

When Caesar (Anelisa Fergus ‘19 arrives on stage, the audience is shocked: she is a woman clad in a crisp, white suit, and she bears a strong resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Here, costumes play a role in establishing the idea that despite the passage of time, society clings to outdated ways of thinking. Contemporary attitudes are represented by Caesar’s suit, and traditional beliefs by other characters’ togas.

Later in the play, a soothsayer warns Caesar to “beware the ides of March” as she makes her way to the Capitol. Calpurnia, Caesar’s husband, is concerned about Caesar, and believes her life is in danger. Caesar appears representative of the modern woman-in-politics who is both confident in her ability to lead and is eager to hold a position of power. Despite the warning, Caesar is dismissive of her husband’s superstition, and intends on completing her trip to the Capitol.  

Where Caesar is the trailblazing female leader, Calpurnia plays the role of the traditional husband. He attempts to discourage Caesar from leaving home. Though in this case, it is because he genuinely fears for her wellbeing, this appears to be symbolic of the way in which men belittle women by doubting their abilities to look after themselves outside the domestic sphere.

The director uses Caesar’s gender switch to explore the ways in which men can discourage ambitious women from pursuing their goals. Perhaps Calpurnia’s anxiety hints at male insecurity or the lack of validation men feel when women, especially spouses, are more successful

Portia is the other prominent female character in the play. Played by Olivia Roth ‘20, Portia adopts the role of the conventional woman. She is seen kneeling before her husband, Brutus, asking for “gentleness,” or more attention from him.  In her dialogue, Portia references herself as Brutus’s main confidante and claims that her role has recently been only to dine with and comfort her husband. With her pleading and tears, she appears visibly troubled by this role, and reminds Brutus that she is his wife and not his “harlot.”  Portia seems to resent her inferior status in society and, more directly, the institution of marriage.

At the climax of the play, politicians, including Brutus and Cassius, stab Caesar to death. The murder appears to be motivated by the general public’s increasing support for Caesar, whom other politicians believe would be a ruthless tyrant. Cassius (Zeb Mehring ‘19) appears to have been molded in the image of the contemporary, misogynistic politician. Cassius’s claim is that Caesar is dangerously ambitious. Yet, we are provided with instances, such as Caesar’s refusal (thrice) to be crowned, which prove otherwise. In reality, it appears that Brutus is intimidated by the idea of a female in power, which he feels is hurtful to his ego and stature. Cassius’s slander of Caesar was originally directed towards a male Caesar. Interestingly, the same lines, when directed towards a female Caesar, bring to mind the sexism women face today. For example, Caesar is referred to as ‘weak’ and ‘womanly’ when he has a seizure in front of a crowd.

Following Caesar’s murder, his dear friend Marc Antony (Sarah Young ‘20) delivers a eulogy, which is intended to stir the commoners and remind them of their loyalties to Caesar. Much of the content of this speech reminds the commoners of Caesar’s love for them. For example, Anthony claims that Caesar’s will stated that his wealth be distributed to the public. This serves as an example of how a populist narrative can emotionally manipulate the public.

Much like in the recent American election, where Trump and his appeal to the common man’s needs, won the most support. Unfortunately for the conspirators, Caesar may be dead, but civil war is not. In an interview with Zak Rosen, who plays Brutus, he said the aftermath of Caesar’s death depicted the current fragmentation of the Democratic coalition in America. Everyone in the Roman senate desired the well-being of Rome, but fought over the ways to achieve this end. Similarly, the Democratic Party has a common aim of establishing a free and equal America, but have little agreement on how to succeed in this.

The continual infighting leads to the death of prominent characters such as Brutus. Finally, one man along with Antony, takes advantage of the divide between the Romans, and claims victory over Rome. Octavius is an opportunist with no prior political experience, who happens to be in the right place at the right time. He takes advantage of a class of people who are dissatisfied with the current state of government, which is unrepresentative of their needs. The play closes with Octavius seated at a desk surrounded my American flags, and a smug expression on his face – a chilling portrayal of President Trump.

In her director’s note, Mannino underscores her purpose for putting up this play: to raise awareness of how the “sexism and internalized expectations of women affect how we treat politicians.” She successfully does this and in the end we are unconvinced that Caesar’s ambition was dangerous or toxic. We are less concerned with the outcome of Caesar’s rule than with what we might have seen had we been given more time to see how she would have ruled.

The backdrop remains constant throughout the play. This is possibly symbolic of the idea that while times have changed, humans and their political systems have not.