Review: Shakespeare Festival’s risky reinvention of ‘Julius Caeser’

L-R: Jeffrey Cummings as Marcus Brutus, Paul Sandberg as Julius Caesar, Andrew May as Casca and Sam Ashdown as Mark Antony in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of "Julius Caesar." Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Katrina Christensen, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News / Cedar City News

OPINION — Imagine Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cassius, the infamous betrayer Brutus, and their ilk transported from the last century B.C. to the 21st century. Would their story resonate, would the characters be any less believable, would today’s audience find them more accessible? Such is the reinvention of the classic “Julius Caesar” the Utah Shakespeare Festival offers during its ongoing 2016 season.

I had not read or heard anything about this particular production although I’ve read and seen the play numerous times.

L-R: Rosie Ward as Calphurnia, Paul Sandberg as Julius Caesar, Andrew May as Casca in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of "Julius Caesar." Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Katrina Christensen courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival 2016, St. George News
L-R: Rosie Ward as Calphurnia, Paul Sandberg as Julius Caesar, Andrew May as Casca in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of “Julius Caesar.” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Katrina Christensen courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News / Cedar City News

Upon entering the new Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre in The Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City where the play is being performed, it was obvious by the set pieces that this production was going to be set in modern times.  There were heavy metal tables, chairs, benches, scaffolding and a large statue of Pompey, Caesar’s old enemy, in a business suit.

I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to Shakespeare and I enjoy seeing it performed in costumes of the era in which it happened.  But my assumption was correct as a few of the cast members entered in casual clothing and “rapped” the opening dialog to music. It was difficult to understand.

In spite of the costumes, the rapping and the industrial feel of the set, the acting brought the production above par and the theater’s close setting helps the audience feel involved in the story.

There are only twelve actors in the show with all but three of them taking on multiple roles. The three women were especially good at seamlessly going from one character to another. Using modern dress helped them change from a role like Portia to roles normally only men could play if they were wearing the traditional togas. It is quite normal for us to see women in politics, the police force or the military and, in doing so, they fit into those parts quite well.

The play revolves around a group of conspirators led by Cassius (Rex Young) trying to get rid of Caesar (Paul Michael Sandberg) – he is well-loved and they are envious of him.  Young’s characterization of Cassius trying to convince Brutus to join them is commanding.  Brutus is a dear friend of Caesar and he wrestles through the night wondering what he should do.  His thoughts take him to realize that while he loves Caesar, he “loves Rome more.”  His performance is also quite good.

The decision is made to stab Caesar while they are in the Senate.  Each one of the conspirators has a knife and one by one they attack him.  The last one to thrust in his knife is Brutus and the look of surprise on Caesar’s face is perfect as he says “Et tu, Brute?” (And you, Brutus?)

L-R: Paul Sandberg as Strato and Jeffrey Cummings as Marcus Brutus in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of "Julius Caesar." Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Katrina Christensen, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News / Cedar City News
L-R: Paul Sandberg as Strato and Jeffrey Cummings as Marcus Brutus in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of “Julius Caesar.” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Katrina Christensen, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News / Cedar City News

Good acting can be seen in facial expressions and body movement and with that Sandberg’s Caesar truly lets you know of his surprise and hurt as he realizes his trusted friend has betrayed him.

I felt sorry for those audience members on the other side of the stage – the Studio Theater is a black box/theater-in-the-round venue. They probably did not get to see clearly Caesar’s emotion as he was facing the side where I was sitting. 

Mark Antony (Sam Ashdown) is led away from the Senate and is not there when the attack takes place.  He comes in on the scene and realizes what has happened.  He congratulates them for their stand.  Later, after finding Caesar’s will, he knows that Caesar was a good man and states it as he speaks at his funeral.  This is the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech.  He rallies the people to join forces and defeat Brutus, Cassius, and the others.  

A fun scene is when Mark Antony and those helping him are meeting. Mark Antony is using a laptop computer writing the names of those that must die.  We see it projected on a screen. They plan to do battle at Phillipi where the actors appear in full combat gear with all the sights, sounds and weaponry expected for this fight.  It is here that all is resolved.

While the modern take on the play had its drawbacks for me at times, I really enjoyed the production. Perhaps Director Joseph Hanreddy decided that setting this production in modern day might offer a reflection of today’s political climate.  He did, however, bring out the best in each of his actors.  

Especially noteworthy was Ben Abbott as the Soothsayer delivering his “Beware the Ides of March” line.  What was particularly good was how he, as the character of Flavius, said his dialog, changed the set around and changed his look back to the Soothsayer to again meet and warn Caesar of his impending doom.  It was a brilliant bit of direction.

I was looking forward to seeing this production in a much smaller and more intimate space than the Studio Theater offered but, with temperatures getting cooler in Cedar City, this venue offers a warmer spot to enjoy the must-see Utah Shakespeare Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”   

Written by Janet Leavitt for St. George News / Cedar City News.

Event details

The Beverley Sorenson Center for the Arts 2016 | Site map courtesy of The Beverley; St. George News
The Beverley Sorenson Center for the Arts 2016 | Site map courtesy of The Beverley; St. George News

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