Encore Michigan

Interlochen Shakespeare Fest: All hail! ‘Julius Caesar’

Review July 06, 2023 Marin Heinritz

INTERLOCHEN, MI–Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is tragic, historical, and relatively rarely staged; however, for Artistic Director of the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival as well as director of its current production, William Church, it is “Shakespeare’s masterpiece of political theatre that speaks to us from the past with vital lessons about how to retain our very soul.” 

And it is with the deepest care and gravity through which he treats this production. 

It is indeed a treat for the audience who are very much players from the start: we are prodded to chant “Caesar! All Hail Caesar!”, effectively becoming the “cruel fools of Rome” from lights up.

Brought into the action, it’s impossible not to see ourselves, and the times in which we live, reflected on stage. A leader, both loved and despised, is misunderstood through the lens of power—and hunger for it—as well as fear, for they go hand in hand. He must die, his detractors decide, and so they rein in support for his assassination through scare tactics including the righteous cry to put the greater good above a man’s life. But doing the wrong thing, even for the right reason, ends in disaster of the highest order. “Not that I loved Caesar less; that I loved Rome more,” declares Brutus, but his fate is even worse than Caesar’s.

Though its story and themes are resonant today, this production is thankfully set in ancient Rome with delightful technical elements to create an appealing setting. Edward T. Morris’s multi-level set features multiple set of stairs and a leaning wall made to look like ivy-covered marble which slides out of the way to reveal an eerie forest of trees for the battle scenes. Caitlin Eldred’s flowing, draped costumes with fabric belts and low-heel boots are attractive, functional, and appropriately reminiscent of the period.

The drama comes alive with Rachel Diebel’s inspired lighting design that creates both bold and subtle shifts of mood and action, from the red flash of death to the blue grief like a patina that follows. Emily Duncan Wilson’s sound design is ambitious, with carefully-chosen, cinematic ambient music and all the actors mic’d; however, missed cues were terrifically distracting and Caesar’s lack of mic at crucial moments significantly detracted from the character. No doubt this was an off-performance and not part of the design plan.

Yet the acting is universally superb, from the chorus members who play multiple roles to the main characters. Though at times he was difficult to hear, David Montee is a warm, genial Caesar, Sydney James Harcourt an understated yet commanding Mark Antony. His incredible range of emotionality is palpable—the audience wrapt when he speaks.

Laura Ames Mittelstaedt is a strong, angry Cassius and Scott Harman is an animated, funny Caska. James Francis Ginty’s Brutus is warm, thoughtful, and marvelously expressive. He’s wonderfully appealing and offers a distinctively physical performance—not just during the marvelous fight and death scenes (Fight Captain Orlando Grant), but with small yet poignant gestures of face and body as he ruminates aloud.

What could easily devolve into mere melodramatic bloodshed is given the utmost consideration. Director William Church handles murder and suicide both elegantly and boldly, using symbols brilliantly, from bloody hands to running toward a ghost.

It’s a gruesome, disturbing tale to be sure, and yet it’s a beautiful production, a performance from which you walk away feeling you’ve experienced art that’s both thought-provoking and excellent. Perhaps it’s not the most festive way to celebrate the 4th of July, but it is quite profound and very much worthwhile.