Walking in, I already loved the idea of an all female cast of Julius Caesar – women representing the power struggle, manipulations and betrayals that run wild in this classic was bound to be interesting. Yet, I was a little wary of the cliches that might arrive with the play being set in an all girl's boarding school – I didn't want cliches to take away from the epic topics of this play. I was so wonderfully pleased and captivated by the work presented before me. The women at Shakespeare Repertory Company have produced an absolute gem. I loved this show. The performances were so moving, the actors made these characters and story so easy to identify with, and there was not a weak player in the whole ensemble.
Julius Caesar's plot drives around the protagonist Brutus, a friend of Caesar's and a senator, played by Amanda Tudor. There are suspicions that beloved Caesar, who is being offered the crown, is going to rule with his own ambitions at heart and turn the republic of Rome into a monarchy. These rumors are being spread by Cassius, played by Jordan Boughrum, who truly believes that Caesar would destroy the Romans as King, and shares this opinion with Brutus. He convinces Brutus that Rome would be better off without Caesar, and to prevent such a disservice to Rome, they must kill him. Brutus and Cassius convince all the senators to kill Caesar, and convince all the Romans at Caesar's funeral that this murder was in their best interest. Brutus allows Marc Antony, a close friend of Ceasar's, to speak at the funeral to show how genuine he is, but Marc Antony cleverly convinces the crowd that this act was done out of the senators own ambitions, causing a mob to drive Brutus, Cassius, and their supporters out of town.
Now imagine all of this performed by all women in schoolgirl uniforms, on a bare stage, set in the 1960's. The whole school uniform thing might be a little overdone, but I ended up liking it; it allows you to forget that this was supposed to be 2000 years ago, and solidly puts the settings and issues into today's terms. My one critique of the setting is that despite a few hairstyles, I never really got the 1960's feel and I could have done without the era in the synopsis as it never really comes into play.
I cannot write another word without saying the acting was INCREDIBLE. Shakespeare provides a lot of subtext for his characters, and these extremely talented ladies chewed it up and turned it into something powerfully relatable. Tudor plays Brutus with a quiet intensity, who is so consumed by doing right by Rome and removing ambitious Caesar, she's blind to the fact her desires are actually driven by her own ambitions. As the play unfolds, her quiet intensity turns into a roaring lion whose own ambitions rage out of control. Casca, brilliantly portrayed by Liz Sklar, was no longer just a conspirator against Caesar, but one of the "bad girls" drinking gin and smoking, mocking Caesar in a way my girlfriends and I mock girls with bad hair. Emily Clare Zempel plays a timid-turned-manipulative Marc Antony, who's powerfully emotional speech over Caesar's body rocked me to the core. Alexis Robbins turned Cinna into a conniving "Mean Girl" who's queen of the pact. I could say good things about every ensemble member. The cast is comprised of excellent actresses who add new dynamics to old roles, while keeping the epic feel of the play. Brilliant.
Go see Julius Caesar, not only because it's great, but to support what Bushwick Rep is doing. These classic roles deserve to be portrayed, are begging to be portrayed, by females. It's a chance for woman to play the meatier roles in the classics that they were left out of. It's a chance to transform and explore deep and interesting works. It's a chance to make a classic relevant, and (don't hate me for this) possibly making it better then it already is. I've never been so drawn into a Shakespeare production, and it's not just because I'm a woman who loves to see woman empowerment. It's because the two-faced, sometimes catty, ambitious and flawed nature of these characters works well on modern women. When I see a forty year old man in a toga with a faux-English accent performing Julius Caesar, I appreciate it for a beautiful classic, but I can't necessarily relate to it. When it is performed by young woman, the story moves me, shakes me, hits me at the core. It becomes a new work with new relevance. Their struggles are brutal, their desire for honor and acceptance is powerful, and their good intentions being manipulated by personal desire is incredibly relatable. No one is a good guy or bad guy in this play; you feel for every one of them. The cast of Julius Caesar at Access Theater made this 400 year old story relevant to my life in the most captivating way I've seen so far this year. Go see this play.
(Julius Caesar plays at The Access Theater, 380 Broadway between Walker and White. Performances run through February 28th, Thursday through Sunday at 8pm. The show runs a little under two hours, with no intermission. All tickets are $18 and are available at smarttix.com. For more show info visit bushwickshakes.com.)