J. Barrett Cooper, Gregory Maupin, Tom Luce, Brian Hinds, & Jon Huffman in Julius Caesar. Photo by Bill Brymer.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Wallace
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2017 Eli Keel. All rights reserved.
Is Julius Caesar a political play? Should it be a political play?
Without planning to be, The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s current production of this four hundred-year old tragedy could not be more of the moment.
New York’s Shakespeare in the Park also produced Julius Caesar this summer, casting an orange hued bloviate in the role of Caesar, an obvious stand in for the sitting president, thereby setting the action in the modern day.
Protests followed, as did news coverage, and several performances where interrupted as angry members of the mob —pardon me, the audience—jumped on stage to halt the action.
Is Julius Caesar political? Of course it is. The question we should ask instead: Is Julius Caesar partisan? Is Julius Caesar a simplistic story of the removal of a tyrant?
Kentucky Shakespeare’s version is set in Rome of all places, costuming the actors in traditional Roman garb, whisking the audience away to a Republic that long ago met a disastrous end, as a string of violent, venal, and insane supreme rulers abused the public and their power.
And the first would-be-emperor was Caesar (Tom Luce). In this production, bedecked in white with royal purple accents, Luce brings a humanity and gravitas that is essential to the role. When his Caesar speaks, he seems righteous, and true to the people of Rome. He reminds us of the Caesar who fought Rome’s enemies, loved his wife, cared for his friends, and has in all things brought glory to the Republic.
So how could he be the evil tyrant?
Well, in the action of the play, he comes to Rome with an army at his back. He’s killed Pompey, in battle, a man who was defending Rome from Caesar, who had flouted the orders of the Senate by bringing his army to Rome.
So was he a tyrant? Certainly he was ambitious. It means that New York’s Shakespeare in the Park is in fact suggesting that the violent murder of our 45th president would be swell.
That makes Marcus Brutus (Dathan Hooper) the hero of this little political parable. Brutus is certainly the lead here, and the tragic hero. In recent years we’ve frequently seen Hooper as the heel, and Caliban, and an assortment of heavy character roles and background characters. It’s great to see him get a chance to stretch his dramatic muscles in a part which allows more subtlety, and affords him the time to build a satisfying arc.
If Marcus Brutus is a hero, then surely his brother and fellow assassin Caius Cassius (Brian Hinds) is also righteous?
Eh… Cassius is the idea guy behind Caesar’s murder, and early in the play it’s established pretty firmly that his actions are motivated by jealousy, not care for the Republic. Hinds is excellent in the conniving bits; he’s frequently cast in roles whose plots or thoughts are their main character attributes. Here he gets to plot, but he’s also a man of action, a role that Hinds plays just as well. His stirring speeches are so convincing that it’s easy to be swayed to his side. To paraphrase Cassius, Hinds bestrides that dichotomy like a Colossus.
So Cassius is a good guy? I mean, the Roman Emperors — and Julius Caesar— literally declared themselves gods. If Cassius chafes at a man calling himself god, and plans to remove such a would-be-theocratic dictator from power, that seems pretty reasonable.
But then Cassius and the assassins, so concerned for Rome, immediately turn to carving her up into pieces once Caesar is dead.
If there is any hero in this play, it’s General Marc Antony (John O’Brien), who is definitely Team Caesar. His stirring speech at Caesar’s funeral is maybe the most well known in the English language outside of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be.” And O’Brien is in top form with that speech, stirring the people of Rome —and let’s be honest the audience— to grieve for the murdered Caesar. O’Brien shows us why Kentucky Shakespeare continues to tap him to play roles like Hamlet, Macbeth and Antony; this guy is at the top of his game.
I won’t go into the arguments that Antony gives while pleading Caesar’s cause—you’ll have to go check them out yourself—but suffice to say it becomes clear then that Caesar is wrongly murdered, and Marc Antony, the hero, must avenge him.
But Antony also begins to dine on the flesh of the Republic, divvying it up between himself, Gaius Octavius, and Marcus Lepidus. Antony doesn’t even make it to the end of the play before he starts to plot with Octavius against Lepidus.
So who’s the bad guy again, or rather, who is the good guy? Is there a good guy?
Julius Caesar is political, but not because it shows the simple murder of an emperor tyrant, and a subsequent revolution. If that were all it took, The Star Wars Trilogy would be the most political thing ever written.
If there is one true villain in Caesar, it’s the population of Rome. The changeable, fickle plebeians are swayed first to Caesar’s side when once they cheered for Pompey, only to abandon Caesar and condemn him at Brutus’s urging; then due to Antony’s rhetoric they start burning the city and murdering any of their fellow citizens who even seem to be on the side of Brutus.
In a bitter twist of irony, those frothing and easily misled citizens echo the people who would condemn a production of Julius Caesar as being “anti-Trump” without even knowing the contents of the play.
One such person took to Facebook last week to condemn Kentucky Shakespeare for their production, misunderstanding that our Shakespeare in the Park is not the one in New York’s Central Park. That Facebook user, full of keyboard courage, had this to say:
“I will no longer be a patron to Shakespeare in the Park…. The Caesar production is offensive and borders on criminal. This is suppose to be entertainment, not a political platform.”
Julius Caesar is political because it indicts everyone in the play. That includes every senator and general, each shown to be human and flawed. Lesser productions might cut the script and cast the characters in a way that Caesar gave us simple answers. Instead Kentucky Shakespeare’s excellent production, under the direction here of Artistic Director Matt Wallace, tells us to think for ourselves about what is right and wrong, holding all who would hold power responsible for the real content of their speeches, promises, and most of all, their actions.
It reminds us that the true villains are those who cease to be responsible citizens of our Republic, and become faceless members of the unthinking mob.
June 29-July 2, July 5-9, July 11, 14, 19, 22
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
C Douglas Ramey Theater at Central Park
Louisville, KY 40202
Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, storyteller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Derby City Playwrights, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”