(Shakespeare Crush #8)
It started with The Shakespeare Workout, a six-week class open to all, which turned out to be a full-body immersion in the works of the Greatest Writer in the History of the World. Taught by two of the founding members of Boston’s Actors Shakespeare Project, I rolled on the floor, breathed from my belly, unlearned my irrational fear of iambic pentameter, and took a shot at performing a passage from King Lear. That experience launched my Shakespeare Crush – a series of essays about the Workout and about performances I’ve seen.
I’m not sure whether Actors Shakespeare Project sees me as a mascot or an unabashed shill, but when I asked to sit in on rehearsals for its next production, permission was readily granted. I promised not to get in the way.
If I’d been given a choice of plays, Julius Caesar would not have been among my top three — or even ten. I knew nothing about it, having neither read nor seen it, and the sword and sandals thing didn’t appeal. But the entire cast was female, and thus intrinsically interesting. I attended about 25 hours of rehearsal, starting with a full cast “meet and greet” reading of the script to a preview before opening night.
I was surprised to find out that I did know something of Julius Caesar, from “Cassius of the lean and hungry look,” to “Et Tu, Brute?” to the “Ides of March.” Also, “the dogs of war,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” “the unkindest cut,” “the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves,” “Greek to me.”
When Caesar, in a moment of supreme arrogance, declares, “I am as constant as the northern star,” I heard Joni Mitchell sing,
“Constantly in the darkness,
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”
I was that teenager in the oft-told tale, who, after seeing her first Shakespeare play, tells the teacher she liked it very much, “But why did he use so many clichés?”
There are a lot of “clichés” in Julius Caesar, and it’s the actor’s challenge to make those lines sound as if new-minted, which happens a lot in the mouths of an all-female cast.
Casting against gender is as Shakespearean as iambic pentameter since he was obliged by the law to have boys take the part of girls. But WS went much further. In As You Like It, a boy plays a girl who disguises herself as a boy, who then encounters her beloved; they become friends and he (the boy-boy) becomes confused when he begins to fall in love with her (the boy-girl-boy) she is impersonating. Did you follow that? Was Shakespeare the first non-binary playwright?
Today, it’s not uncommon for women to play parts written for men in supporting roles, sometimes in drag, sometimes as women. Several actresses have taken the lead in The Tempest, where with the flick of a vowel, Prospero becomes Prospera.
But in the ASP production of Julius Caesar, director Bryn Boice went further, translating ancient Rome into a futuristic/Amazonian kingdom where only women have speaking parts and men barely register as human. Women play the villains, heroes, rabble, comic relief, conspirators, murderers, soldiers, wives and wives, and, of course, Caesar herself. (The production crew is also an all-girl band: director, stage manager, the designers of set, costumes, and lighting, sound engineer, and stagehands.)
Julius Caesar has long been staged to make a political point, commenting on a long list of political leaders including Huey Long, Mussolini, Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Bashar al-Assad, Barack Obama, and last summer in Central Park, Donald the Trump.
Boice’s vision isn’t that literal. The design scheme takes you out of real time and space in a mashup of science fiction, post-apocalyptic movies, video games, and Wonder Woman. This is a world where battles are fought with swords and daggers but documents and letters are written on electronic tablets. The lighting is dim and the venue is sheathed in black plastic; the costumes are all black, too, in fetching but tough variations on leggings, tunics and cloaks that free the body to stride, fight, and own the room.
The seven actresses — of different ages and races – play great roles and deliver juicy speeches that have been off-limits to women for centuries, with interpretations, gestures, and intonations never before seen or heard. Marc Antony, played by Marianna Bassham, begins the famous “Lend me your ears” speech to an angry crowd with the words, “Friends, Romans, Countrywomen.” The gender switch sounds strange, but only until it becomes familiar. Meanwhile, au revoir, cliché.
As it happens, this production of Julius Caesar is political in the broadest sense of the word, and it could not be more timely. Being heard is a recurring theme in the play. A voice rises from a noisy crowd, “I will hear Brutus speak.” Later, another voice shouts, “Peace! Hear the noble Antony.”
At its heart, the #METOO revolution is much deeper than challenging and changing the vile behavior of far too many men; it is about ending the ancient code of silence, enforced and internalized, that keeps women from speaking out, making noise, testifying, being heard.
All hail, Caesar.
Photos credit: Maggie Hall