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Review Mon Feb 18 2013

Julius Caesar: Munby's Modern Jewel

CST_CAES_Image2.jpg

Shakespeare's classic Julius Caesar is a tale so romanticized by time that few realize its modern relevance. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater's contemporary retelling of the tragedy shows it to be more than just pretty prose and togas, but an ancient allegory for current events.

At first, it's odd to hear tangled Shakespearean language coming from the mouths of senators in suits and traffic police, but with the seasoned cast's appropriate inflections and gestures, the Bard's script comes to life. The audience finds themselves in an ambiguous Rome, stranded somewhere in limbo between the past and the present, hearing the hushed beginnings of a revolution spoken by Marcus Brutus (John Light) and Caius Cassius (Jason Kolotouros). Election time nears, and an aged leader, Julius Caesar (David Darlow), is the popular incumbent. Caesar meets his senate on the marble steps of the curiam, the broad columns rising up on either side of him casting a tone of fascism and dictatorship into the air, and the bold red and gold banners giving a strength to the leader that his own bones no longer possess.

Dialogue permeates the entire first act, laying the ground work for the dramatic death of Caesar and the action-packed aftermath. The ghostly soothsayer utters her famous premonition to "beware the Ides of March," which triggers dreams and unrest on the part of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia. Cassius' cunning is revealed to the audience as he manages to convince the entire senate, with the exception of Brutus, of their duty to free their people from the despot that Caesar may become -- to "strike the serpent in the egg" before it has a chance to bite.

Brutus struggles immensely, torn between his love for Rome and his love for Caesar, and with the realization that these two are no longer the same. In true Shakespearean fashion, Brutus reveals his thoughts to the audience through a series of asides, with the rest of the scene frozen in the muted light of the background. He makes his decision -- that the serpent Caesar "hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous," and that his duty is first to Rome.

The first act culminates with the death of Caesar, stabbed by every member of the senate, with Brutus last to wound his leader. The presence of knives in the play is the only throwback to the traditional staging, but an important one to capture the intimacy of Brutus's last confrontation with Caesar. The actors held the audience in their grip. Who could make us cry over the death of Caesar but CST?

At the start of the second act, the regal reds and golds have faded into dismal and hopeless greys. Rome has devolved into riotous chaos and war. Upon discovering Caesar's lifeless body, the leader's right-hand-man Marc Antony (Dion Johnstone) has beseeched the senate to allow him to prepare a proper funeral. The funeral rings of the 99 percent, complete with a money-thirsty mob pressing upon Caesar's casket. In a stroke of brilliance, Antony turns the situation on its head.

In his famous novel, The Prince, Niccolo Machievelli claims that it is far better to be feared as a leader than loved. Yet, by reading a fake will in which Caesar bequeaths his treasures to the Roman people, Antony reminds this angry mob of their love for the man who ruled them and fuels their passion for revenge against the senate members.

From there, the play unfolds into war-time scenes rife with gunfire and explosions, reminiscent of the footage on the news as Americans watched the war with Iraq begin in 2003. This is where the production breaks from any other traditional interpretation of the same play. The chaos and calamity on stage reminds us that Caesar in Rome is Gaddafi in Libya; Caesar in Rome is Hussein in Iraq; Caesar in Rome is Mubarak in Egypt. Caesar was a leader just like any other. We have seen history repeat itself so many times. A leader falls; the people riot, kill, steal, and cry tears of joy and sorrow; and then the country moves on and rebuilds; years pass; normalcy returns; and then the whole process begins again.

Maybe that's what Jonathan Munby, the director of the play, was trying to communicate. In an interview with the staff of CST, Munby said, "It becomes a play about how we deal with the chaos of civil war and the disintegration of society." Munby speaks of how it's not the assassination that's important, it's the question of how we move on after it happens.

The show plays through March 24 at CST's Jentes Family Auditorium, 800 E. Grand Ave., on Navy Pier. Tickets ($48-$78 with discounts for groups, students and young professionals) can be purchased by calling the theater's box office at 312-595-5600 or by visiting the theater's website.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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