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The Arts
08.12.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by r.r. jones
HOW THE MIGHTY HAS FALLEN: Jonathan David Visser's Marc Antony kneels next to the slain Caesar (Matt Gottlieb) in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2009 production of 'Julius Caesar.'

Conspiracy Theory

The world of ancient Roman politics leaps to life in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's outstanding production of 'Julius Caesar'

By Christina Waters


AN ELIZABETHAN playwright shed light upon a political coup carried out 1,500 years earlier and in a few deft strokes illuminated both the English language and the politics of the moment. The man was William Shakespeare, and the words fueled a high-stakes drama called Julius Caesar.

Every student, hopefully, still reads this swift, crisp and ripping great tale of power's inevitable abuse. But Shakespeare Santa Cruz's searing production is no earnest, amateur theatrical. In a repertory cast led by Chris Butler (Cassius) and Scott Wentworth (Brutus), this Julius Caesar resounds with introspection, mistaken motives and the human propensity to political distortion. The signs of the times are there, yet are misread and ultimately misunderstood until the stage, like ancient Rome itself, is strewn with corpses.

All of the action occurs on a spare multilevel stage adorned only with two imperial columns. A raucous mob has taken to the streets, celebrating the feast of Lupercalia. March 15, the prophetic Ides of March, is just around the corner. Even before we meet the polarizing dictator Julius Caesar (Matt Gottlieb), we meet the conspirators, led by Cassius, who plot to ensnare the noble and much-respected Brutus into their murderous plans to remove the Roman leader from power.

Since today's audiences know that this play involves men in groups, lofty sentiments and a few choice deaths--indeed, we all know exactly how it ends--the challenges to pumping freshness and surprise into any modern-day performance are huge. Director John Sipes, his cast and production team are up to the task. Opening night's audience relished every morsel of Shakespeare's dissection of human ambition and bad faith. Two and a half hours sped by. Black military fatigues costumed all the men, save Caesar, guaranteeing a handsome canvas, and one which served the urgency of the events rather than distracting from them. To distinguish the various Romans, the director heightened each character's identity by means of unique vocal and movement style. No mono-British accents here. Cassius is all heat and bombast, insinuating his agenda with petulance and swaggering body language. Brutus' gnawing introspection becomes ultimately poignant. Caesar is an understatement of narcissistic megalomania. Every voice like crystal, every word a shock of insight and, alas, recognition.

As Casca, David A. Moss relaxes for a moment and deftly spins a tale of whether or not to include Cicero in the conspiratorial contract--Cicero, whose every word, he declares, is "Greek to me." It is an indelible moment of stagecraft. Even though language drives the play ("Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war"), the superbly choreographed crowds and the son et lumiere of battle easily convey all the "action" needed. In the pivotal moment of Mark Antony's funeral oration for Caesar, Jonathan David Visser delivers a bewitching barrage of political spin. Manipulating the masses--"lend me your ears"--while protesting his respect for the nobility of Caesar's assassins, he is alternately graceful, devious, witty and chillingly familiar. This is a tale about the power of tyranny, and the tyranny of power--tyranny that has a way of disguising itself as liberation. As the poet of our era, Bob Dylan, put it, "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace."

Thanks to laser-sharp direction and an outstanding cast of professionals, this Julius Caesar is immediately accessible, and not simply in its legible poetry and intrigue. The drama's many intertwining forces play and provoke each other in this vigorous production. Emotions--portents, dreams, ghosts--insinuate themselves against cold reason. The fallibility of the senses derails the arrow of justice. Enduring friendships play across the greater loyalty to one's country. And all of this unparalleled Shakespearean brilliance playing in the redwood glen is here, now, in Santa Cruz.

Such cultural wealth is not be taken for granted. Et tu? And if you've seen most of this astonishing repertory cast in A Midsummer's Night Dream, you know why they call it "acting."


JULIUS CAESAR plays in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen at UCSC through Aug. 30. For schedule visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org. Tickets are $32-$48 (kids are $13; last-minute rush tickets are $20) at 831.459.2159 or www.santacruztickets.org.


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