Does a company producing the classic political tragedy Julius Caesar leap heart and soul into emphasizing its current cable news event parallels at risk of losing touch with the classical text, or does it focus on classical interpretation, ignore modern relevance and risk boring and losing today’s audience? I prefer Shakespeare Dallas’ productions of the Bard’s comedies to their interpretations of his tragedies. With the comedies the director’s hand and vision are always clear and connection to modern times evident, relevant and celebratory. Their productions of the serious plays seem to attempt to straddle both approaches and end up being muddy, neither fish nor fowl.
If I didn’t already know the play Julius Caesar, I’d have come away very confused after seeing Shakespeare Dallas’ opening night performance of it at the Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre. Lots of spectacle, vivid sound effects, flashy swordplay and histrionics — sure hard to follow the plot as presented or understand the nature and motivations of the key characters. Well-done, the plot and character elements could be superbly conveyed on a bare stage without lighting and sound effects, with actors in neutral-toned casual dress. A perturbing visual cacophony permeates this production.
Shakespeare Dallas’ actors present either broadly drawn caricatures (title role, Brutus and conspirators) or a reality TV like swagger with way understated vocal and facial expression (Mark Antony, Octavius, and peeps). In what world do these characters co-exist? A benumbed nonchalance and bizarre physicality pervade the stage during murder and suicide scenes, almost as though the physical acts are of secondary consequence to the actors speaking their lines. Per example: after the monstrous ritual murder of J. Caesar in Act I, the conspirators amble around the stage as though Caesar’s mangled body is a piece of furniture, not in-your-face graphic evidence of their horrific savagery. Have these men killed like this before? I don’t think so. They proceed to wave their bloodstained hands around in the following scene like zombies, almost comic. Was this an intentional ghoulish effect, or did the costume mistress threaten the actors with bodily harm if they “got any of that nasty stage blood on the nice costumes”? It presents a most distracting, disconcerting picture. To what end? What is going on?
Speaking of costumes, ouch. Is this production set in any particular time period? Is there a defined costume theme? I’m nonplussed. In Act I the conspirators wear a type of modern day business suit attire while Caesar looks like a cross between a generic pontiff and an Elvis impersonator. Mark Antony and youthful friends are attired somewhat like 1990’s punk rock idols, visibly tattooed. Act II heads off in another direction. The men’s costumes seem like a cross between Star Trek uniforms and 1920’s aviator outfits with knee boots and breeches, an attractive enough jumble on the younger actors, but a bit like Tom Delay’s dance attire on the mature fellows (surely unintentional?). When Brutus adds a gaudy, short smoking jacket to his boots/ breeches/ Star Trek ensemble I pictured Liberace and wondered how this attire helped to reinforce or develop the tragic decline of the “noble” character Shakespeare created. Very confusing. Disappointing.
I hate writing negative reviews, so I’ll stop here. This is a truly great play, stuck in a baffling, hodgepodge production. Should have known something was awry when the music blaring from the speakers pre-show was by The Beatles. Huh?
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, as presented by Shakespeare Dallas through October 3 at the Samuell Grand Amphitheatre, then at Addison Circle Park October 7–11. Directed by Raphael Parry.
Features many fine performers: Anthony L. Ramirez, Aaron Roberts, Adrian Spencer Churchill, Austin Tindle, Hilary Couch, Ginneh Thomas, Justin Locklear, Michael Johnson, Francis Fuselier, Eric Devlin, Mike Schraeder, Randy Lee Chronister, Calvin Roberts, Matt Fowler, Josh Hepola, Thomas Brazzle, Ryan Martin and Alex Worthington