Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Julius Caesar (2011)

I thought I knew this play, having played Portia in a school production as a child; and of course it’s deeply steeped in our culture in one way or another. But OSF revamped it, stuck to a nearly literal line reading, and transformed it into one of the top ten plays I’ve seen in more than 16 years at OSF.

The play begins outside the New theater – the first brilliant decision made was to hold this play in their most versatile and interactive space. They went for a completely stripped down set – a series of boxes create the occasionally needed stage, table, chair or bed. Many of the actors play multiple parts, and rest in the wings, rarely leaving the audience’s visual awareness. As you approach the New Theater, the walkway is lined with tall white banners which, in stark language, describe leaders from many ages and backgrounds . . . all of whom have been assassinated. The banners continue inside and upstairs, bringing you into history. I didn’t realize it the first time I saw the production (I saw it twice, and would see it again in a minute), but Cassisus (Gregory Linnington) was wandering the lobby, occasionally chatting with people in a delightfully friendly manner. As the time to begin draws near, all of the actors stand in front of one of the four seating areas,casually chatting with the people in the front row. Vilma Silvia strides out, dashing in boots and a military-style leather jacket.

“Good evening, everyone” she called out, “I’m Vilma Silvia and tonight I will be playing Julius Caesar.”  (Surprise and consternation and then a strong sense of anticipation works its way through the audience.) “I’m going to need your help tonight throughout the play. Whenever I make this motion –” and here she threw her arms up into a V over her head — “I’m going to need to you to yell and clap and shout.” Can you do that? Let’s try it.”

*noise*

“That wasn’t really loud enough, can we do it again?”

*louder noise*

“Hmmm…  One more time.”

This time, we thundered, trying to be as loud as possible and just as the noise peaked the actor’s ran onstage, shouting the opening lines, and we were transported to Rome, watching the triumphant entrance of Julius Caesar, another member of the vox populi. It was extraordinary, as was the production. Vilma Silvia was magnificent — hard as nails, casually owning her power as a leader, and content with her popularity. Jonathan Haugen’s Brutus is fair-minded, but falls a bit too easily into his brother Cassius’ plotting, all the while giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from him over the years. We see clearly how envy can bring a good man down. Linnington’s Cassius is certainly “lean and hungry” and he wears his ambition like a shield, elegantly and passionately decrying the rise of a monarch who will displace the republic.

Seeing a woman stabbed to death — brutally — brought an extra dimension to the horror of her assassination, another interesting plot twist created by a strong woman as Caesar. With a simple shift in gender Cassius’ diatribe against Caesar as he makes the case for overthrow comes across as a sexist rant. I found Caesar’s cold reasoning a clever counterpoint to the impetuous and often unrealistic political scenarios of the other characters. When Mark Anthony (performed superbly by Danforth Comins) grieves, it is all the more poignant.

The 2011 Julius Caesar is one of the best OSF has produced in the past two decades.