By Connie Shakalis | H-T Reviewer Jan 21, 2018
With friends like these, who needs enemies? And, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, to succeed is to “endure the betrayal of false friends.” Although Julius Caesar doesn’t endure, but succumbs, to his pernicious pals, in effect he (she, in IU’s production) wins anyway. Her murderers all die agonizing deaths, and Caesar’s ghost gets to wander around, gloating.
William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” could have used Jane Austen’s play’s title “Persuasion,” in that Caesar and nearly all the other characters spend most of their time delivering hearty, persuasive speeches to one another. Some scholars have noted that the play is really a series of character sketches and monologues. As in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, we learn about people: what we want, disdain and fear and how we go about gaining or avoiding it.
The play is more about Brutus and Cassius than Caesar, and we watch as these two best friends unite against their common friend-turned-enemy, Caesar: After all, when peers rise too high, how unsavory they become. Brutus and Cassius, however, are doomed by their own moral deafness and military mistakes.
This production of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” by IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance kept me riveted. Justino Brokaw plays Cassius as his third-year MFA thesis role, and he is divine, nearly nabbing the night. Oh, if only Brutus had believed him about not allowing Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral! Gives meaning to the old “when you assume,” you make an ass-out-of-U- & -M-E.
Brutus, why did you assume Antony was telling you the truth when he swore to speak calmly and unprovokingly to the plebeians about Caesar’s murder? Michael Bayler, who was such a marvelously goofy Black Stache in last fall’s “Peter and the Starcatcher,” is equally intense as Brutus, in a very different way. He is the only conspirator who loves, instead of merely envies, Caesar, and I felt his torment as he was persuaded to help kill her. Pondering Caesar’s growing ambition, he worries, “How that (power) might change her nature.” He damns not her but her “abuse of greatness.”
As Mark Antony, Nicholas Jenkins, another third-year MFA thesis student, was heart-rending, and I knew he was devastated at Caesar’s fate. His Antony is the kind of friend I want. Meaghan Deiter made a powerful and regal Caesar, and I slipped right into believing her, regardless of the gender switch.
As Decia, Tess Cunningham is in her cunning glory, and this is my favorite of the roles I’ve seen her play. She wriggles her way into Caesar’s head, and is she ever mean. As Casca, Matthew Waterman gave us some levity with his “rudeness and wit,” which we needed. In a less than light moment, he has the privilege of starting the massacre; I cringed. Shai Warfield-Cross was a beautiful, tender Portia. Although I longed for the (excluded here) part where she shows husband Brutus her self-inflicted thigh wound (to prove her soldier-like worthiness to hear his secrets), I liked her grace.
Sound designer Andrew Hopson’s eerily anachronistic sounds include helicopters and machine guns and lent a frightening — like who needed more fear? — ambience. Direction by Jenny McKnight had the audience leaning forward throughout and cheering at the end.
Ambitious people, like Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Antony, shine most brightly among ambitious people. Talent shines amid talent. This production, with its wide-ranging cast, has plenty of both.
If You Go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.
WHAT: “Julius Caesar,” written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jenny McKnight.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $5-$20; 812-855-1103, theatre.indiana.edu