Shakespeare’s Motley Crew

at the Raven Theater

What sets off a riot nowadays? A not-guilty verdict? Sure. An NBA championship? Why not. The murder of a charismatic political leader by his colleagues? Interesting, that one. It would depend on the faith people had in his goodness as a ruler and how the assassination was presented by the media and the powers that be.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a hero of the people, having just emerged victorious from a civil war. The people wish to crown him, when his colleagues in the Roman senate band together and murder him on the senate floor. His assassination is at first accepted by the masses, who buy into Brutus’s speech that Caesar was dangerously ambitious. But their emotions are immediately swayed in the other direction after that famous speech by Marc Antony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”), who implants the idea that Brutus murdered Caesar for ignoble reasons. His speech incites the masses to riot, all hell breaks loose, and the civil war is renewed–bringing up important questions concerning public dissent, power, and political personalities.

The notion that such a thing could happen today is at the heart of this new production by Shakespeare’s Motley Crew. Director Deya Friedman chooses to place the action in the present–contemporary clothes, contemporary furniture, contemporary music. She even adds a television crew to give an air of authenticity and casts women in traditional male roles (notably Roz Francis as Cassius and Laura Macknin as Octavius).

Julius Caesar is well suited to bringing up interesting questions about politics and anarchy today. Unfortunately, the crew of costume, set, and sound designers Friedman assembled do little to bring these issues forward, and the play falls short of its mark on several levels.

Though she set this production in the contemporary world, Friedman seems to have given little thought to what kind of world this is. Where are the Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell figures? Where is the officious pomp surrounding the showing of Caesar’s corpse, the flags, the Secret Service men? Furthermore, what culture in the 20th century lays out a head of state with a dirty-looking rag covering his face?

This technical laziness is a shame, because Friedman has gathered together a solid and sometimes impressive group of actors. Strong performances are delivered by David Gordon as Caesar, Magica Bottari as his wife Calpurnia, Peter Bruckner as Brutus, and Jeffrey Bunn as Marc Antony. Laura Macknin is absolutely stellar, double cast in the wildly different roles of Brutus’s wife Portia and Octavius Caesar. Andrea Gall gives an impressively poignant performance as Lucius, Brutus’s personal aide, and Arthur Hampton is unnervingly convincing in his small role as the soothsayer.

But despite the best efforts of the actors, the play doesn’t move forward as grippingly as it could. For example, there is no sense of impending doom during the act-one stormy night, when Caesar’s enemies conspire to murder him. Just as the heat of summer plays a role in Romeo and Juliet, the storm plays on the emotions of the characters in Julius Caesar, helping to create an air of foreboding. Lighting designer Mark Galbraith and sound designer Jeff Stilson barely create a sense of nighttime, let alone storms and eerieness.

Darryl Fleming’s costumes make it seem as if choosing a contemporary setting was a means of saving money through avoiding expensive period outfits. In her military jacket, stretch pants, and pointed shoes, Cassius looks like something out of a rock video. Calpurnia looks like Ophelia in her white nightgown, and several important members of the senate and military need to hem their pants.

This production of Julius Caesar could have really made you think. Unfortunately, Friedman needs to put more thought into developing her concept, and her designers need to put some serious effort into how they convey it.