Of the many possible reactions to the works of William Shakespeare, “needs more history/characters/dialogue” is probably one of the least common. However, this has not stopped the Quintessence Theatre from expanding Julius Caesar. With additions from John Masefield’s The Tragedy of Pompey the Great, Joseph Addison’s Cato, and The Tragedy of Caesar’s Revenge, their production includes an exploration of the historical and literary context alongside one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies.
The actors keep the production from feeling glutted by some tight role-doubling. Michael Gamache opens the play as a sympathetic Pompey, portraying him as loyal to Rome but openly frustrated by the years of civil war stemming from the corruption of the Senators commanding him. Gamache reappears as Cicero in a brief but humorously supercilious turn as one of those problem senators, and then finally as a stoic Messala, once again fighting a losing battle on behalf of the Republic. Brett Ashley Robinson, meanwhile, cycles through the play as zealous supporters of Caesar, her dedicated (if somewhat smug) Acilius leading up to an incendiary Mark Antony. Though Robinson occasionally has problems with the lines, her ardent declamation of Caesar’s eulogy perfectly encapsulates Antony’s mix of passion and casual ruthlessness.
Michael Brusasco as Brutus and Mary Tuomanen as Cassius offer solid performances as the lead conspirators, though it takes until the argument in Act IV, Scenes 2-3 to fully convey both the depth of Brutus’ emotion and the chemistry of their friendship. Paul Hebron as Caesar, however, seems to more deliberately keep to the background. Despite the play opening with major players treating Caesar as a military and social threat, Hebron portrays him with such affable reasonableness that it’s easy to see both how he gained such loyalty and became such a threat. It is only during his rejection of Calpurnia (Tom Carman) that Hebron lets the pleasant façade slip and reveals the cruelty and ambition driving Caesar forward.
The set, designed by director Alexander Burns, is a pleasingly minimalist combination of modern and Elizabethan staging. The back of the stage is a traditional structure with two curtained doorways and a platform above, but the lack of thrust stage is compensated for by using parts of the house (which also serves to subtly include the audience among conspirators and rebel armies alike). The white structure makes an excellent screen to project title cards and maps, and combined with the black curtained wings and stage, makes a nicely ironical statement in a play that revels in the lack of black-and-white answers. The only source of confusion is when the backdrop splits apart for Octavian’s dramatic entrance, revealing a burst of riotous color from the storage backstage and giving the confusing and fleeting impression that he has miraculously sprung from some paradise to grace the world of mortal men.
Like the set, Jane Casanave’s costume design also tends to the straightforward. The production is modern dress, though indeterminate enough to comfortably fit into most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Discord’s Guy Fawkes-like mask, which oscillates freely between its traditional imagery of defeated anarchy and the modern association with anti-establishment activist groups. The Roman elite who take their wars seriously wear camouflage fatigues in the field; otherwise they appear in somewhat old-fashioned suits. (The one sour note is the tailoring, as it strains belief that such privileged and fastidious characters would be caught dead in such poorly-fitting suits.) For important occasions they also add modified togas, now a ceremonial garment inherited from times past. Even the plebeians’ outfits reflect the wealth and power of Rome, producing a well-dressed mob in snappy khakis and blazers.
Burns’ direction is quick-paced and kinetic, a particularly impressive and much-needed counterbalance given that the production is otherwise light on action. In addition to incorporating other plays, Burns also showcases the video animation of Eyal Lerman. Title cards sum up the results of military and political battles (punctuated by dramatic electronic music) then segue into a moving map that both grounds the audience in the events of the play and shows the world-spanning breadth of the conflict.
However, the most obvious additions to the play are people – Pompey (Gamache), Cato (David Pica), and even the personification of Discord (Pica, Tuomanen) – which quickly establishes the production’s focus on the personal interactions that fueled the historical drama. At the same time, choosing to begin the play with Pompey (with selections from Act II of Masefield’s The Tragedy of Pompey the Great) frames this as Rome’s tragic flaw: individual action cannot stop Caesar’s influence because he is a symptom of a greater problem. Acilius notes that Pompey actually shares the same desire as Caesar to limit the aristocracy and introduce reforms, and warns that Rome’s government will turn on him rather than willingly purge its corruption; the scene ends with orders from the Senate countermanding Pompey’s battle plan and forcing him to fight (and lose) at Pharsalia. Years later, it is clear that the same corruption still lingers: Brutus’ most emotional speech in the play is from Act IV – not against Caesar, but Cassius, his friend, implicated in charges of bribery. Multiple scenes with a lone soldier surrounded by politicians in suits; the parallels of Pompey, Cato, and Brutus; the singular honest men taking a stand against Caesar’s faction; even the same actors resurfacing in various roles – the production portrays a grim cycle that grinds down opposition until the whole structure fails. Octavian’s prominence at the conclusion of the play marks the conclusion of the sovereignty of the Senate and People of Rome, with his full title as Emperor projected across the stage followed by an epitaph for the Roman Republic.
The Quintessence Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar is an impressive undertaking, an astutely observed political thriller as well as an epic tragedy. The transformative blending of works serves to augment rather than overstuff, and the result is a thrilling synthesis of Shakespeare, drama, and history.