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Cal Poly's Theatre Department brings Julius Caesar to the stage

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ET TU? :  Seven conspirators kill the title character in Cal Poly Theatre Department’s production of Julius Caesar. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CAL POLY THEATRE DEPARTMENT
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CAL POLY THEATRE DEPARTMENT
  • ET TU? : Seven conspirators kill the title character in Cal Poly Theatre Department’s production of Julius Caesar.
To kill or not to kill is the primary question posed in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Of course, most contemporary audiences know the answer to this question. Caesar is betrayed by Rome’s senators, including his protégé Marc Brutus, prompting one of Shakespeare’s best-known lines, “Et tu, Brute?” Cal Poly professor Josh Machamer’s challenge, in the theater department’s first Shakespeare production in five years, is to delve beyond what happens.

“Everybody knows what happens to Caesar,” he explained. “But the idea was why did this happen.”

The world he is given to explore is fertile ground for subtle and complex philosophies about morality and patriotism. The traditionally flat, rectangular expanse of stage is replaced with a small titled circle with a jagged line splitting it in half. Elongated panels hang from the ceiling, canvases for text and images that will be projected throughout the play. Students within the Liberal Arts and Engineering Program contributed technological expertise, making the performance one of the most technologically advanced that the theater department has ever done.

Machamer selected a version of the play that scrambles the linear narrative and even removes a few scenes, paring what would ordinarily be a two and a half hour performance down to 90 minutes. The video projections ground the audience by providing a context for each scene; Caesar’s assassination is referred to as day zero, and the play’s order might bounce from two years after day zero to a month before in the space of a few minutes. Shakespeare purists might object, Machamer acknowledges, but shaking up the traditional line-up and juxtaposing different events gives the audience a new way of
looking at the more than 400-year-old play.

Because Shakespeare wrote the play with only two female roles—and neither of them very substantial—Machamer’s version is not gender specific. He has a female Casca, Metellus Cimber, and Decius Brutus, all just as bloodthirsty as their male counterparts. Gender disappears. The costuming assists in this illusion. The goal was to remain consistent with a classical feel, without donning togas or business suits. The solution was simple: frocks, buttoned up, not unlike what Neo wore in The Matrix.

The impression—very deliberately constructed—of the play’s world and its occupants, is one of order, void of color. Caesar’s murder releases color into the world.

- THE IDES OF MARCH APPROACH:  The Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department stages William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Spanos Theatre Feb. 25-27 and March 4-6. Performances take place at 8 p.m. with the exception of a 2 p.m. production on March 6. Tickets cost $15, $12 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets visit pacslo.org, drop by the box office before a show, or call 756-2787. -
  • THE IDES OF MARCH APPROACH: The Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department stages William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Spanos Theatre Feb. 25-27 and March 4-6. Performances take place at 8 p.m. with the exception of a 2 p.m. production on March 6. Tickets cost $15, $12 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets visit pacslo.org, drop by the box office before a show, or call 756-2787.
“It’s very disorganized and chaotic and ravenous,” Machamer said, of the scene in which the play’s title character is assassinated. “Which is really antithetical to what our idea of Rome was—very structured, very stoic.”

Then there’s the moral ambiguity that plagues the conspirators, and especially Marcus Brutus whose brooding character paves the way for
Hamlet. The parallels between his own struggles and contemporary politics are powerful.

 “Nobody thinks that they’re a villain,” pointed out Machamer. “Everybody thinks they’re doing right. There is no villain in this play. Everybody is doing what they do because they feel it’s for the good of Rome.”

Setting aside the myriad technical and other assorted behind-the-scenes elements, Shakespeare’s voice rings loud and clear. And ominous.

“I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar,” Ryan Austin opens the play, as Brutus. Traditionally, the line is spoken by Cinna, but Machamer reassigned it to Brutus. Then, suddenly, Brutus’ conspirators are charging the stage coldly, introducing themselves, and their passions, proclaiming their dislike of Caesar.

“Caesar, beware of Brutus,” warns Austin, as Brutus. “Take heed of Cassius,” adds Chase Mullins. “Come not near Casca.” “Have an eye to Cinna.” The threats accumulate as each body steps forward to issue them, perhaps emboldened by the fact that they intend to attack as a pack. “There is but one mind in all these men and it is bent against Caesar,” they proclaim, as one, and even the most uninformed of audiences cannot but know that Caesar’s days are numbered.

The play’s pacing is fast. The actors enter the stage, speak, and exit quickly, more like a dream that cannot be paused than a play. It is a dream that many will never wake from. But for contemporary audiences—safe from daggers and politicians fired with blood lust—it’s a trip to Rome well worth the fare. 

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach dreamt last night that she did feast on sushi. Send soy sauce to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

 

 

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