nytheatre.com review by August Schulenberg
July 29, 2010
For Brutus only overcame himself.
This line, near the end of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, is meant to respect Brutus's suicide: "And no man else hath honor by his death" is the line that follows. But in The Drilling Company's Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot production, this line echoes with a second meaning of self-deception; a theme that ripples throughout the rest of this unusual production. (For those unfamiliar with the plot, you may find a synopsis here).
Director Hamilton Clancy has made three big choices with the staging. First, he has set the political machinations of the play against the backdrop of a school board. This creates a number of jarring juxtapositions of text and staging: battles are fought with rulers, and Ligarius's ague becomes a gym teacher's broken foot.
Second, Clancy has added a number of songs commenting on the action, written and performed by Steven Lee Edwards. These wry folk melodies add a second layer of distancing to the action, as if Twelfth Night's Feste had left Illyria for Rome.
Finally, Clancy chooses to abstract the violence; so that Sinatra plays at Caesar's assassination, his body is symbolized by a dress form, and the mob of angry plebeians wear masks.
These choices combined set us at a considerable distance from the violence of the play, creating a particularly bloodless Julius Caesar. While this robs the production of the more visceral thrills promised by the rawness of the space and intimacy of the staging in the round, it makes the focus of the play shift to the self-deception of the characters.
This deception is most keenly felt in Mark Jeter's portrayal of Brutus. Played with an earnest simplicity, when this Brutus says, "Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods," he is completely unaware of the distance between the beauty of his language and the horror of his friend's murder. Where Brutus' endless self-righteousness often makes him unbearable in performance, Jeter never winks, and the result is a character of tragically limited self-awareness.
A similar blindness infects Selene Beretta's Cassius. Though her first scenes lack nuance, she later settles into a thoughtful portrayal of a woman who claims to hate those above her in power, while desperately courting their attention. Caesar is wrong about this Cassius when he says, "Such men as he be never at heart's ease / whiles they behold a greater than themselves." This Cassius would have spared Caesar, if he didn't lavish all of his attention on Antony.
This gives the Brutus and Cassius relationship added poignancy. Brutus is wrong about everything—murdering Antony, moving on Phillipi, funding their armies—but Cassius woos and keeps him because she so badly needs his love and attention: "Never come such division 'tween our souls / Let it not, Brutus."
While this mutual blindness makes them a perfect match for the other, it leaves them no match for Ivory Aquino's Antony. In contrast to the self-deception of her rivals, this Antony is always completely aware, both of herself and the ironies present: "My credit now stands on such slippery ground / That one of two bad ways you must conceit me / Either a coward or a flatterer".
In the strongest scene of the production, Aquino's Antony seems genuinely uncertain about her actions on the pulpit; sincere in her belief of the Brutus's nobility, afraid of what the plebians will do if they know the truth, yet all the same, aggrieved enough to risk the dogs of war. She is making it up as she goes, and as a result, we don't know how this most famous of scenes will end until it does.
So near the end of the play, when Antony calls the "butcher" Brutus "The noblest Roman of them all," she balances the irony, genuine feeling, and cold political maneuvering perfectly; and you realize why Shakespeare was drawn to revisit this complex character in Antony and Cleopatra. Brutus, Caesar, and Cassius are contained by the play, and so destroyed by it. Antony's self-awareness transcends and survives it.
Drilling Company's Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot's Julius Caesar may be bloodless, but several strong performances will keep you thinking about how easy it is to be overcome by our own self-deception.