Julius Caesar: The Death Of A Dictator
nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
August 14, 2010
Gangbusters Theatre Company has brought William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to FringeNYC all the way from Hollywood. They have chosen the 80-minute Orson Welles adaptation. Inspired by Welles's production from 1937 set in Nazi Germany, they have set their piece "sometime after that." While Welles's production was innovative and somewhat shocking to a 1937 theatre audience, it has become more and more common for theatre companies to place Shakespeare's plays in more modern settings. The true key to making an update work is to motivate the decision and then stay true to the characters and the story being told. Unfortunately that is not what can be found with this production.
The Senate is comprised of heavy metal/punk warriors. They pack machetes as well as guns and sport red swastika-style arm bands with a scrawled "R" (for Rome) in place of the usual "A" (for anarchy), greeting each other with a slightly altered "Sieg Heil." The first few moments of the piece are very promising. For five solid minutes I thought I was in for something truly special. The brief halogen flashlight choreography set to some powerful Metallica music brought the energy in the room up and grabbed me right away. But those first few moments proved to be the strongest in this play.
Leon Shanglebee produced, designed, and directed this piece and I suspect that that is where the problem lies. I have found that when theatre artists take on too many tasks at once certain areas of a production can suffer and in a modernized Shakespearean tragedy, even the smallest missteps seem enormous. It could have been that Shanglebee simply didn't have time to assist his actors in finding the honest performances with all his other responsibilities because what we are given are very inwardly focused and surface moments from almost every actor. Brutus, played by Christian Levitano is our main focus while Caesar, played by Romel Jamison, is only a brief image. To me the meatiest moments of Julius Caesar come with the friendship these two men shared and the decision Brutus makes to kill him despite his love for him. He chooses the good of his country over his personal feelings. These feelings are never explored and even Caesar's death is borderline comical; Jamison's jerky and awkward movements after being run through with ten or so blades was difficult to watch, but not in the way I would have hoped. A few performances shine through. James Gilbert finds the honesty and humor of Casca and Richard Ruiz as Cassius digs his heels in and goes for it from start to finish.
The sound design, aside from the music during scene changes, is a constant distraction. Gunshots and drums offset the rhythms rather than complimenting them, taking potentially powerful moments and muting them. The cutting of the play helps it clip along nicely with good pacing, but I wonder if this inhibits a truer exploration of the characters. I was very disappointed that the female roles, Portia and Calpernia, played by Mary Kelsey and Stephanie Roche respectively, are practically thrown away, showing only two very brief moments. I would have preferred they be cut completely, giving more time for exploration from the rest of the cast in the lengthier scenes, rather than display these two brilliant characters as shrewish, whiny women.
Overall this production was a miss. It has a good idea that with more time and exploration and cleaner, more specific execution could become something great. As it stands, the rockin' Metallica interludes are the most powerful part of the show, and when you have a play as solid as Julius Caesar on your hands that's not where you want the focus to go.