Encore Michigan

MSF’s ‘Julius Caesar’ a taut blend of classic and modern Shakespeare

Review August 11, 2017 David Kiley

JACKSON, Mich.–It’s hard to imagine a Shakespeare play more timely than Julius Caesar; a play in which the central character, Brutus, struggles with his inner conflicts of honor, patriotism, ambition and friendship. It’s not like those are themes we aren’t confronted with daily by what pathetically passes for political leadership today.

No doubt that is why director Janice Blixt has the fine cast of this production toggle between togas and modern garb–to remind us that though the play was written in 1599, it could have been written last week.

Caesar (Lee Palmer) is fresh off victory in defeating Pompey’s sons at the Battle of Munda, and the people of Rome are cheering him on. Senator Caius Cassius (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), an extremist, believes that Caesar represents a dangerous grab for power and puts the idea in the head of Senator Marcus Brutus (Robert Kauzlaric) that Caesar should be bumped off to prevent him from exercising power before the fact. In point of fact, Caesar has been offered the crown of Rome three times prior to his victory, and has refused it three times. So much for dangerous power grabs in reality. Cassius reminds us so much of some current members of the U.S. Senate, it is a laudable exercise of restraint that Blixt didn’t rename the characters as part of her interpretation of the play.

Several members of the cast carry smartphones. That’s right. Even in togas, they are thumbing away texts, and answering the odd call­–another nod to the fact that the treachery Shakespeare wrote into the story was very much au currant for 1599, and 15 minutes ago and next week.

The scene in which Caesar is murdered is choreographed beautifully. There is much blood, which proved shocking to the audience. But it was so slickly executed, that it brought fabulous life to this relic of a play that seems ripped from today’s headlines. Marc Antony’s (David Blixt) famous speech, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” is wonderfully delivered by Blixt, hitting perfectly the wink-wink quality of the speech in the public square as he straddles loyalty between Caesar and Brutus, while actually body slamming the latter under the wheels of the nearest chariot.

The nod to modernity and timeliness continues in the second act when, after the murder, and Brutus and Cassius are preparing for and then waging war with their followers against Marc Antony and Octavius and their followers. The Senators are now donning modern fatigues and black berets. The knives they used as side-arms in ancient Rome have given way to 9 mm Glocks, and soldiers are firing automatic rifles. The guns fire in short fire-fight sequences, so the audience needs to be prepared for loud, real-sounding gunfire.

Such moves into thoroughly modern actions, costuming, etc. is fraught with many members of the Shakespeare going public. There are many who would prefer to keep the Senators in togas for the whole play. But, then again, the AK-47s could work to lure new and younger audiences. In any case, there is nothing that feels forced here, which is testament to Blixt’s direction.

Overall casting, as is usually the case with the Michigan Shakespeare Festival , is wonderful. Besides the principal players already mentioned, Shawn Pfautsch as Senator Caska, Janet Haley as Metella, also a Senator, Vanessa Sawson as Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, and Alan Ball who is Cynna and comes back as a plebian and soldier stand out for their performances. As a man who gets beat up by thugs after the murder, Ball is a poignant and the fight sequence is chilling, reminding more than one audience member, I’m sure, of Detroit 1967.

Set design, as ever with MSF, is simple but effective, with Roman columns draped in red bunting.

The story and production is chilling and exciting, and if you can’t see the relevance and connection to our state of the world today, then you just aren’t trying. And as for the patrons who left at intermission complaining it wasn’t as light and bouncy as the company’s Taming of the Shrew, playing concurrently in the MSF, you missed a great play.

The festival has one more weekend in Jackson, and then it moves to Canton.

Clock here for show days, times and ticket details. 

Week of 7/16/2018

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