Postmodernism fills the Caesarean section of ART

by Beacon Staff • February 27, 2008

The line between what is modern and what is ancient blurs, and thus, humor is injected into scenes that would otherwise be stiff and lifeless.,Director Arthur Nauzyciel's Julius Caesar, playing at the American Repertory Theatre, is a startlingly fresh and wonderfully self-aware production.

The line between what is modern and what is ancient blurs, and thus, humor is injected into scenes that would otherwise be stiff and lifeless. At a running time of around three hours, the play uses constant diversion to amuse the audience, and does it well.

Nauzyciel matches the musicality of Shakespeare's classic text with a jazz trio, whose songs seem to echo the sentiments of the characters throughout the play. For example, when Brutus considers suicide on the verge of his defeat by Mark Antony, the jazz trio sweetly sings "Suicide is Painless."

Shortly following Caesar's defeat of famed general Pompey, a group of Romans -fearing that Caesar will take absolute control of Rome-secretly plan to murder Caesar at the next senate meeting. Led by Caius Cassius, a prominent senator, they enlist the help of Marcus Brutus, one of Caesar's closest friends, to finish the act.

What ensues is a powerful scenario of a country at war within itself, with factions splitting off favoring those who murdered the legendary senator and those who support his avengers, Caesar's friend Marc Antony and nephew Octavius.

Weaving in more modern music than just the jazz trio, songs such as "My Body is a Cage" by Arcade Fire and "Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado are fitting with the sharp modernism of this production.

The music lends a certain magic to the play which, combined with its pop-art themed backdrop, allows the viewer to imagine that they are enmeshed in 1960s Washington, D.C.

On the day foretold by a soothsayer to be his downfall, Caesar ignores the strange portents that could have prevented his death and attends the senate, where the mutinous senators inevitably stab him to death.

Nauzyciel plays up the mysticism woven into the play, emphasizing the weight of prophecy by characterizing the soothsayer as a mysterious sunglass-wearing, bearded beatnik.

Once again, the modernity of the setting clashes with the antiquity of the text, culminating beautifully in Calpurnia's monologue to her husband, Caesar, which is stunningly delivered by lead actress Sara Kathryn Bakker in hoarse, wide-eyed fear.

Bakker switches seamlessly from the overwrought yet imperious wife of Caesar to the somewhat clumsy but intelligent Portia, wife of Marcus Brutus.

The two characters mirror one another and are carbon copies of the same blonde, impeccably dressed 1960's woman-both clad in an ensemble snatched straight off the back of Jackie O.

At Caesar's funeral, both Antony and Brutus deliver speeches dedicated to the memory of the slain hero, and soon Marc Antony's brilliant oration stirs the Roman crowd into frenzy and turns them against the conspirators.

In a more modern context, the presidential debates that currently surge across the country have pitted Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton against one another. Much like Antony and Brutus, the former is young and inspirational; the latter is experienced.

This modern adaptation of Julius Caesar is a study in dualism; from its set, in which large photographs of the theatre seats form the backdrop for the entire production, to the characters, whose well-pressed suits come across as eerily similar.

Antony's dry wit and Brutus' earnest disposition (respectively played by James Waterson and Jim True-Frost) are mirror images of political leaders past and present. When, at moments, Brutus' overshadows Antony, it is not the fault of the text, but merely the strength of True-Frost, whose performance is enigmatic enough to convince the audience that his actions are justified.

While in previous productions, Julius Caesar has been a platform for political awareness (most notably in 1937 in the height of European facism and 2005 in London just before the subway bombings), ART's version does not try and shove parallels between George W. Bush's presidency and Julius Caesar's short-lived attempt at power, but merely suggests that the audience take a moment and think about the situation in America today.

And although Nauzyciel protests that "all theatre takes place in the here and now," he has still done a wonderful job of bringing the audience simultaneously to ancient Rome, 1960's Washington, and present-day Boston.

ART's production has combined a thought-provoking juxtaposition of modern and ancient politics and truly enjoyable theater to create a memorable production that revitalizes one of Shakespeare's best works.

Julius Caesar will be playing at

the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge until March 16.