Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Josh's review of The 39 Steps
This Julius Caesar, which features an all-female cast and design team, imagines an alternate vision of Rome where women command all political power. Director Bryn Boice has flipped all pronouns and references to men to the other gender; Marc Antony's famous funeral monologue begins "Friends, Romans, countrywomen, lend me your ears." This gender switch feels especially apt for a Shakespeare play that lets women do little more than advise their husbands by twilight. As stories of sexual harassment from male celebrities and politicians dominate our news cycle, it might be appealing to imagine a nation that values women's experiences and even elects them to highest office. But this casting disavows any notions that this female-led society is less treacherous, or its leaders less power-hungry, than a Rome run by men.
Boice's production feels unnerving in its intimacy. The audience is positioned in the round, like spectators at the Colosseum primed for a bloody fight, and Boice places her actors mere feet from us as they brandish their daggers. The lighting (designed by Jen Rock) transforms the bare theater for each scene: a meeting of the conspirators plays in a single square of light, while the blood Caesar sheds in the Senate is illuminated in fire-alarm red.
As the play begins, the women of the castrobed in black and hoodedcharge the stage and engage in combat, like street fighters at their last rave. They writhe on the floor, freeing the violent energies of their bodies, then stand to form a ritualistic circle, their hands meeting palm to palm. You might suspect Macbeth's witches are somewhere nearby. Their costumes, designed by Rebecca Jewett, are mirthless and militant; these women are warriors. These street scenes are an intriguing entrance into the world Boice sets, suggesting the dark underworld our conspirators run in. But as the night goes on, these interludes offer diminishing returns. I couldn't help but laugh by the third or fourth transition, when the actors ran on to shriek in audience members' faces.
The cast is more effective when left to its own devices. Bobbie Steinbach catches our attention early on as a venomous Cassius, a fierce woman unafraid to get her hands dirty, conning Brutus into joining Caesar's murder. Steinbach spits out Shakespeare's words like they were poison. You wouldn't want to double-cross her. MaConnia Chesser is another standout as a ghoulishly comic Casca. And Marianna Bassham is masterful in her two key scenes as Marc Antony: first, unleashing a savage anger while she grieves over Caesar's body; then, slyly manipulative as she appeals to the crowd gathered for the funeral. Bassham runs the wave of emotions in this speech: she's wryly calculating, but heartbroken too, and her thirst for vengeance is plain to see. After Bassham's commanding presence here, it's a shame Marc Antony doesn't have much stage time for the rest of the play.
So our focus falls to Marya Lowry's Brutus, a woman visibly haunted by her decision to join the plot against Caesar. "Vexed I am of late with passions of some difference," Brutus first describes herself; and Lowry is indeed a passionate woman with a divided soul, playing the roles of both villain and victim. Her Brutus looks upon the younger Caesar with jealousy; she seems spiteful of Caesar's rise to power, maybe because she herself never rose as high. That's how Brutus justifies the murder: "As she was ambitious, I slew her," she tells the crowd.
That sentiment feels awfully familiar, doesn't it? These women are happy to cut down their counterparts for being too ambitious, for wanting to shatter any ceiling that gets in their way. There's a special place in hell, as everyone from Madeleine Albright to Taylor Swift has said, for women who don't help each other. In this nightmarish Julius Caesar, we are there, in a hell of their own making.
Julius Caesar, presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project through December 17, 2017, at Studio 210 at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA. Tickets can be purchased at www.actorsshakespeareproject.org or by phone at (617) 933-8600.
Cast: Liz Adams (Caesar); Julee Antonellis (Cicero); Marianna Bassham (Marc Antony); Erin Eva Butcher (Calpurnia); MaConnia Chesser (Casca); Jade Guerra (Metellus Cimber); Charlotte Kinder (Portia); Marya Lowry (Brutus); Bobbie Steinbach (Cassius).
Creative Team: Director: Bryn Boice; Set Designer: Cristina Todesco; Lighting Designer: Jen Rock; Costume Designer: Rebecca Jewett; Sound Designer: Amy Altadonna; Props Master: Abigail Shenker; Stage Manager: Samantha Layco; Production Manager: Deb Sullivan.