Writers Theatre's 'Julius Caesar' a tale for our time

 
 
Updated 9/16/2016 4:10 PM
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  • Brutus (Kareem Bandealy), left, and Cassius (Scott Parkinson) discuss their unease at the ambition they believe has overtaken their leader in Writers Theatre's "Julius Caesar."

    Brutus (Kareem Bandealy), left, and Cassius (Scott Parkinson) discuss their unease at the ambition they believe has overtaken their leader in Writers Theatre's "Julius Caesar." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

"That part of tyranny that I do bear, I can shake off at pleasure."

Among the uneasy musings of Roman citizens that bookend Writers Theatre's superb production of "Julius Caesar," that statement can be taken two ways. It can refer to the collective, the citizens empowered to remove a leader who proves a tyrant. Or, it can refer to the individual, the would-be leader who justifies tyranny as necessary for the preservation of the republic.

Either way, as Writers' deeply resonant production of William Shakespeare's political tragedy makes clear, the statement is false.

Overthrowing a leader isn't easy. Obtaining support from an easily distracted public is difficult. And the possibility exists that the deposed's successor could be even worse.

The political assassination Cassius (Scott Parkinson), left, and Brutus (Kareem Bandealy) committed brings their beloved Rome to ruin in Writers Theatre's scorching, streamlined production of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," adapted and directed by Parkinson and Michael Halberstam.
The political assassination Cassius (Scott Parkinson), left, and Brutus (Kareem Bandealy) committed brings their beloved Rome to ruin in Writers Theatre's scorching, streamlined production of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," adapted and directed by Parkinson and Michael Halberstam. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

In "Julius Caesar," Brutus (Kareem Bandealy), Cassius (Scott Parkinson) and the other senators murder Caesar (played with imposing swagger by Madrid St. Angelo) because they fear he intends to make himself king and force them into his service. But what they don't know is that their actions will pave the way for the republic's destruction at the hands of Mark Antony (Thomas Vincent Kelly), Caesar's loyal friend and a most telegenic pol, and Caesar's calculating heir, Octavius (a nicely aloof Sydney Germaine).

Yet in this unpoetic, ever-pertinent play, the question of how far citizens may go to remove a leader is an intriguing point to ponder. As artistic director Michael Halberstam points out in his program notes, the play "raises far more questions than it offers answers."

Madrid St. Angelo, center, plays the titular role in Writers Theatre's timely production of William Shakespeare's political tragedy "Julius Caesar."
Madrid St. Angelo, center, plays the titular role in Writers Theatre's timely production of William Shakespeare's political tragedy "Julius Caesar." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Indeed.

Adapters/co-directors Halberstam and Parkinson trimmed some scenes from Shakespeare's play, reworked others and "refashioned" the final act. The result is a shrewd, streamlined narrative with distinctly chilly (and familiar) undertones.

Among their most effective revisions is the reworking of Mark Antony's funeral oration for Caesar. A cunning bit of crowd manipulation and political propaganda (courtesy of the adroit, charismatic Kelly), Antony's eulogy concludes with the "dogs of war" speech from an earlier scene. It's a powerful, unsettling coda. And it's intensified by Jesse Klug's lighting, which bathes the stage in red and casts Kelly in shadows, making him look positively demonic.

Halberstam and Parkinson's most striking image is Caesar's highly stylized assassination. Equally disturbing are the moments where politicians whip their Roman constituents into a frenzy. The menace underscoring the chanting and foot-stomping is cringe-inducing. There's no more chilling reflection of the rising tide of fascism than this display of public anger and frustration (all too familiar to anyone watching certain campaign rallies).

Brutus (Kareem Bandealy), top, explains to the throngs that Julius Caesar was assassinated to preserve the republic while Antony (Thomas Vincent Kelly), bottom, mourns the fallen leader in Writers Theatre's "Julius Caesar."
Brutus (Kareem Bandealy), top, explains to the throngs that Julius Caesar was assassinated to preserve the republic while Antony (Thomas Vincent Kelly), bottom, mourns the fallen leader in Writers Theatre's "Julius Caesar." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

That said, the play's opening moments are a bit puzzling and the social media references sometimes feel like a gimmick. But those are minor issues in what is a vital, vigorous production.

The play unfolds against Mike Tutaj's projections on Courtney O'Neill's imposing set. Tutaj's images range from a discrete senate chamber and church sanctuary to floods and forest fires, whose devastating effect mirrors Rome's reduction to rubble at the hands of the men sworn to preserve it.

O'Neill masterfully conveys the before and after of the doomed republic. We first encounter Rome in its glory, with wide-open public spaces supported by soaring columns, all of them a bit askew. But as the civil war rages, Rome deteriorates into a scarred, cratered wasteland -- the shining city reduced to a pile of rocks.

Mark Antony (Thomas Vincent Kelly), left, and Octavius Caesar (Sydney Germaine) go to war against their leader's assassins in "Julius Caesar," running through Oct. 16 at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Mark Antony (Thomas Vincent Kelly), left, and Octavius Caesar (Sydney Germaine) go to war against their leader's assassins in "Julius Caesar," running through Oct. 16 at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Equally impressive are the accomplished actors Bandealy and Parkinson, Roman senators turned assassins. There's a great deal of depth to Bandealy's Brutus, suggesting a man of nobility, pragmatism and temperance. At the same time, he is a man at war with himself, whose betrayal vexes him until his final moments.

Parkinson is an actor of remarkable skill. Watching his Cassius stand silent, enduring Caesar's insults, his expression a combination of shame and ire, we understand what compels him. It's there in his eyes: distrust, frustration, fear and profound disappointment that the Caesar he knew and loved has become a tyrant.

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