Don’t come late for Joe Dowling’s Julius Caesar (I know the play is generally said to be Shakespeare’s, but this director deserves top billing). Patrons tardy by even five minutes will not only miss half a dozen of the year’s most arresting theatrical images, they’ll find themselves directly in the path of an enthusiastic Roman rabble that Dowling sends hurtling into the Shakespeare Theater’s audience at every conceivable opportunity. Aisle traffic often seems as thick as that of a D.C. rush hour; it’s also as potentially lethal, since by Scene 2 nearly everyone is carrying a concealed weapon.
From the moment that two half-naked torchbearers light the stage’s ceremonial lamps and join what appears to be a mob at a disco, this Shakespeare Theater production is reaching aggressively across the footlights. It is a ferociously postmodern Caesar, powered by abstracted but instantly recognizable 20th-century images. Set designer Frank Hallinan-Flood has draped his monumental white marble tower and flanking “Hail Caesar” placards in so much royal purple bunting that the stage looks like a cross between the Old Post Office Pavilion and a convention podium. Revelers, attired in wide-lapeled suits that make them seem to have stepped directly from a ’30s Living Newspaper, are harangued in the first scene by anti-Caesar insurgents dressed as union organizers. Caesar’s throng arrives from the back of the auditorium, quite as if they’ve marched in from a political rally out on 7th Street.
Bright martial music reinforces that impression as Ted vanGriethuysen’s Caesar enters wearing a white linen suit that positions him in the political firmament somewhere between Huey Long and Argentina’s Carlos Saúl Menem. When he speaks, he has the bland, reassuring tones of a front-running politician who’s still claiming that he doesn’t want to be a candidate. This Caesar is a consummate populist. He doesn’t so much greet Mark Antony as present him to the crowd. And when a heckler shouts that he should “beware the Ides of March,” Caesar responds carefully, as if aware that TV cameras are everywhere. Noting the battle fatigues which suggest the heckler might be a disoriented veteran, Caesar is magnanimous. The line “he is a dreamer” is delivered not with a despot’s arrogance but with a gentle concern that will doubtless play well on the nightly news.
All this takes place in the first few moments of a production that will later transport its audience to a war-torn, futuristic dystopia with military uniforms straight out of Mad Max and a multicultural aristocracy that appears to have beamed in from Star Trek. The surprises Dowling has in store for audiences at this most familiar of Shakespearean dramas—the revenge tragedy high-school students love to hate—are nearly as varied as they are striking. Watching the play will be a constant revelation, even for those who thrilled to D.C.’s last Caesar, performed two years ago by the scrappy Washington Shakespeare Company high atop an under-construction office tower. That production also explored the play’s contemporary ramifications, drawing much of its power simply from being performed before a wall of windows that invited the outside world in. But there’s been a sea change in world politics since March 1991. The arc of internecine conflict that follows the deposing of authoritarian regimes is now appallingly familiar. Brutus and Cassius may not expect violence and disarray after Caesar’s assassination, but the audience does, having witnessed events in Bosnia, Russia, and elsewhere.
So there’s even more tension than usual as Philip Goodwin’s shifty, weasely Cassius inveighs against Caesar to the Dukakislike Brutus being played by Robert Stattel. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind creates a storm behind billowing purple fabric for these scenes, illuminating the conspirators from below so that they cast huge shadows on the marble edifices behind them. And he keeps the stage dim until after Mrs. Caesar (dressed in Nancy Reagan red) has failed to convince her husband to stay home from work. As a result, the harsh, shadowless, klieg-lighted Senate comes as a physical shock, with Caesar and everyone else seeming horribly exposed and vulnerable.
The assassination is sort of Zapruder by way of Peckinpah (albeit without blood): instantly familiar, harrowing, and balletic in its slo-mo stylization. But the killing’s aftermath is what’s truly terrifying—a pause, held so long that every conspirator’s doubts are given time to register. The revolution was planned only this far, their immobility seems to say. Now what? Spin doctors aren’t yet in place. And you can almost see them realizing that Mark Antony (Gary Sloan, in jeans and a greatcoat) will rile the populace and all hell will break loose.
The scenes that follow aren’t quite as effective as what precedes them, partly because the rabble-shouting-from-the-audience technique is getting old, and partly because the show’s acting interns (recruited from Howard, South Carolina, and Utah universities) have more energy than finesse. Still, the staging packs plenty of surprises right up to intermission, when the death of Cinna the poet (Floyd King) is depicted as gay-bashing of a particularly vitriolic sort.
The first few images of the second half are nearly as evocative as their counterparts in the first. Octavius Caesar downs a beer amid the huge chunks of marble and fragments of a bombed-out tower that are all that remain of the original setting. Mark Antony lists conspirators on his laptop computer—“He shall not live; look…,” he says, his finger poised for a dramatic keystroke, “with a spot I damn him.” And when a battlefield tent is required, the acres of purple fabric which billowed stormily in the first act fly up at center stage to create a tent fit for a general.
It is here that the second half’s strongest moment—the argument and reconciliation between a now hollow-eyed Brutus and a fatalistic, defensive Cassius—takes place. Thereafter, the play lets down this production as much as it does any other. In Elizabethan days, two entire acts of battle scenes may have been what theater patrons craved, but today, it’s hard not to be reminded that movies do warfare better. Actors charge on from stage left and right, thrust and parry for a bit, then charge up the aisles to no particular effect.
Still, Dowling keeps piling on the images, as sound designer Keith Thomas supplies sensurround crashes, brisk marches, and music fit for a biblical epic. Dowling carries off one final moment—what’s been called the Polanski effect, where a director adds a visual fillip to a closing scene to remind the audience just how often history repeats itself—by showing Octavius to be everything Brutus feared Caesar would become. It’s an ominous close for one of the most absorbing, visually riveting productions the Shakespeare Theater has produced in years.