There are two striking non-traditional elements in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of “Julius Caesar.” First, it’s set at the time of the American Revolution. And second, although almost all of the characters are men, women play more than half the roles.
The reason for the changed time period, to paraphrase director Chris Cotterman’s program notes, is that the story of Julius Caesar was distant – but relatable – history to Shakespeare’s original audiences. So why not create a similar link – okay, not quite as distant – that would resonate with American audiences?
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is dedicated to “recreating the experience that Shakespeare’s audiences would have had.” I can’t say how relevant his audiences might have found the hubris of the title character – the presumptive king. But I suspect it might touch a chord with audiences here.
Having women play a number of male roles – as men – is nothing new for the Shakespeare Factory. But unlike last summer’s all-female “Henry IV,” in this case, the casting appears to be more gender-blind than an effort at a political statement.
Anne Shoemaker plays Caesar, at least initially, as a fairly reasonable leader. But as we hear in Caesar’s final long speech before his death, his self-aggrandizement builds.
Almost from the start, Shannon Ziegler’s Brutus is unusually calculating and angry – in all but his tender scenes with his young servant Lucius. In the assassination scene, Ziegler’s Brutus doesn’t just deliver the final blow, he stands face to face with Caesar, then slits his throat. Caesar initially defends himself with sword and dagger, though I’m not sure how he remains standing after being repeatedly stabbed. The fight choreography is by Tegan Williams.
In the meadow at Hopkins’ Evergreen Museum and Library, where this production began its run, Ziegler stood on a hillock to deliver Brutus’ post-assassination speech to the populace. The theatergoers become the populace, and Cotterman’s direction reinforces this by having some of the actors stand – and respond – in the audience.
The tactic becomes increasingly effective when Fred Fletcher-Jackson, as a shrewd Antony, takes Brutus’ place and delivers Antony’s famed funeral oration. Fletcher-Jackson is a stalwart, determined Antony, a true friend of Caesar’s – although he, too, becomes a bit taken with his own power.
Many of these subtleties were difficult to appreciate in the outdoor Evergreen setting, where actors – who are not miked – often fought a losing battle with noisy choruses of crickets and overhead airplanes. When the actors spoke with their backs to the audience, the situation got even worse.
These problems, presumably, will decrease this weekend when the production moves indoors to the company’s permanent home at St. Mary’s Community Center in Hampden.
“Julius Caesar” is one of the most frequently taught Shakespeare plays, but it’s not one of the most frequently produced. The last production I saw was also in an election year – 2004.
The Shakespeare Factory’s “Julius Caesar” isn’t the most polished I’ve seen. But twelve years later, the themes of battling for power, baiting the citizenry, and recognizing an honorable leader are once again timely, thought-provoking – and American.
“Julius Caesar” continues August 19-21, indoors at St. Mary’s Community Center in Hampden. Ticket information here. A final performance will be staged outdoors at Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, MD, August 26.