Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Set in Rome in 44 B.C.E., the play explores the moral tug-of-war between personal ambition and democratic good. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Julius Caesar (C. David Johnson) himself would be the main protagonist, but the play focuses more on his friend Brutus (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Brutus's complex relationship with fellow senator Cassius (Lisa Wolpe). They two share a fear that Caesar is drawing dangerously close to becoming the dictator of the Roman Empire. Cassius eggs Brutus on to lead a conspiracy to murder the beloved leader. As a result, they bring about a bloody civil war, and the republic they fought so hard to preserve crumbles around them.
While it's possible to draw many parallels between these characters and their actions and current events, the thing that sticks out to me the most is the way the plebeians (commoners) are so susceptible to rhetoric, turning their support so fickly from one opinion to another with little attention paid to fact and fiction. How little we have changed.
This production, under the direction of Andrew Borba in his PlayMakers debut, is beautifully crafted. Scenic design by PlayMakers regular Jan Chambers is one of her best. She has built an ancient Roman arena ringed by massive columns and dominated by a giant bust of Caesar, which looms over the entire production like the face of God. The symbolic rifts in the marble expose the ground underneath as though the underworld itself is waiting to swallow the entire senate. And the blood-red stains that seem to emanate from the statue of Caesar and stain the stage are both striking and thought-provoking. Grier Coleman's costumes walk a fine line between ancient and modern, referencing both Roman drapery and post-apocalyptic fashion. Lighting design by Kate McGee provides some striking moments as murder is committed and Rome burns.
The language of Shakespeare is a special challenge for an actor, and this ensemble does it justice. Special recognition must be paid to Tia James who, as Mark Antony, is commanding and at times riveting, making the gender-blind casting feel like an obvious choice.
This Julius Caesar is both faithful and fresh, proving again that no matter the age, Shakespeare always seems of the times. The themes of ambition, hubris, and the murky area in between are as relevant today as ever before.
Julius Caesar runs through March 22, 2020, presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company, at UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Paul Green Theatre, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. For tickets and information, please visit www.playmakersrep.org or call 919-962-7529.
Playwright: Julius Caesar