A maddened woman on the verge of tears speaks out from the front left corner of the stage. Her pleading words drift over the audience, while behind her several men pose still as statues halfway up a large gray staircase.
A drum beats, and the men take another step upward before freezing in place. Like a game of Red Light-Green Light, each steady pound of the percussion leads them an inch closer to their destination: the Roman Senate. The frenzied woman is Brutus’s wife Portia (Shirine Babb), who knows full well that today brings with it the death of Julius Caesar.
The Folger Theatre’s version of Shakespeare’s famous “Julius Caesar,” which is running now through December 7th, reinvigorates a play that many might have only read or glanced over in class years ago. The story follows the historically controversial scheme devised by the Roman senators to rid themselves of Caesar’s encroaching politics. It chronicles the growing conspiracy between Cassius (Louis Butelli), Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) and their supporters, which leads to Caesar’s (Michael Sharon) violent stabbing before the Senate. The play then recounts the consequences of this betrayal, focusing on Caesar’s right-hand man Mark Antony (Maurice Jones) and his fight to topple the power of these conspirators.
It is often hard to get younger audiences interested in the complexities of a Shakespearean script, but Folger Theatre pulls this off remarkably well with its plethora of visual cues. Even before the play begins, a hooded Dementor-like figure sits eerily still on stage with smoke rising up from a large bowl behind it. This is the audience’s first encounter with the Soothsayer (Nafeesa Monroe), who famously warns Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March.” Costume, staging, and lighting are integral pieces of the play, and they transition fluidly throughout the scenes.
For the first half of the play, the elaborate costumes stick to a traditional Roman fashion. The Soothsayer and senators alike don the same gray robes and are indistinguishable from one another, adding to the play’s cryptic suspense. Darker gray columns rise up to the ceiling and frame the dark atmosphere on stage. Stripped of traditional Greek and Roman architectural style, they serve as a reminder of the play’s ominous tone and the destruction of the normal order in Rome. Dimmed lighting is layered with shadows that blanket these columns, the floor and the stairs with physical grim foreboding. In varying scenes the colors will change to unnerving shades of reds, greens, and purples that correspond with the turmoil of each character.
It is this portrayal of chaos and violence that unsettles the audience and highlights the play’s brilliant technical aspects.
In perhaps one of the most disturbing yet fascinating scenes in the play, the conspirators’ names are listed off as they are about to commit the ultimate murder of Caesar. They walk to the front of the stage and stand in a row above harsh yellow floor lights. Lined up and lit up just so, they smile malevolently and stare into the midst of the crowd before turning back around to carry out their dark deed.
Yet even this moment isn’t the most shocking element of the play. After the intermission, the actors’ Roman garb is exchanged for the guns, gas masks, trench coats and stiff military hats of World Wars I and II. Devoid of any official insignias, it is unclear which sides Mark Antony, Cassius and Brutus represent. This ambiguity works in favor of such multifaceted characters. Alongside this sudden costume change is a quickening of pace as the famous fight between the two armies breaks loose. The remainder of the Shakespearean script is performed in front of a wild backdrop of bomb reverberations and trench warfare, putting a more modern spin on the grim spectacle.
Few constants are carried over from the first half of the play, and when they are, these provide a startling contrast to the 20th century setting. The Soothsayer is always present, sitting silent and motionless in the background. Her presence is a somber testament to the lingering dread that plagues each character.
One of the only faults of the play was its overdone scenes of portent. Oftentimes several gray-robed figures would crowd onto stage and take on overdrawn poses that seemed more laughable than frightening. Similarly, in the fighting scenes, Fight Director Casey Dean Kaleba chose to alternate between slow motion and normal movements. The resulting product was a somewhat awkwardly paced scene that wasn’t visually appealing to the audience.
Though some of this experimentation may not have helped the play, it is this same touch of innovation that caused it to shine amidst its dark and solemn themes. Whether it was the conspirators stomping at regular intervals up the stairs or the feverish Roman public stamping and pounding their fists at the front of the stage, Director Robert Richmond monopolized the use of space and added fluidity to a work that is becoming less and less familiar to younger generations. Folger Theatre’s “Julius Caesar” extends far beyond its time, and with its nuanced combination of modern and traditional twists, it is sure to impress audiences both young and old.