nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
February 18, 2010
Julius Caesar set in an early-1960s all-girls boarding school: Shakespeare meets Mean Girls. There: somebody had to say it.
The all-female Bushwick Shakespeare Repertory was founded to give actresses a crack at those classical roles often denied them. After Bushwick produced Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It, director Jordan Simmons decided to reimagine Julius Caesar, finding in the play the political intrigue, fierce but shaky friendships, and backstabbing (figuratively or literally) one would find among adolescent girls. So we have eight young women in brown blazers, plaid skirts, and knee socks playing multiple roles, fleshing out the action and text of Shakespeare's play, word-for-word, "he"-for-"he" and "him"-for-"him"—no changes in pronoun nor changing Julius and Mark Antony to Julia and Marcia.
The brightly-lit stage is bare except for two blond wooden chairs. At stage left, a screen shows a photo of the school, and then a segment of a 1950 instructional film, Control Your Emotions, in which the male narrator compares feelings to fire that can keep you warm or burn you alive. Later, the screen will project buildings, rooms, fields, lightning, red clouds, crowds, and blood.
In this school, Julius Caesar (Lexi Balaoing), who wears a bow around her ponytail, is the leader of the popular crowd, and the bun-wearing Mark Antony (Emily Clare Zempel) is her best friend and staunch ally. A tiny girl (Alexis Robbins), shoulders hunched and books pressed to her chest, shies up to Caesar and whispers, "Beware the ides of March!", but the clique pushes her and taunts her as a "dreamer." Yet Caesar is wary of the "lean and hungry" Cassius (Jordan Boughrum), a pageboyed, bespectacled, nerdy-looking girl. Although Caesar has reportedly refused a crown offered by Antony (we could imagine that crown as Homecoming Queen or Class President), Cassius is afraid Caesar is becoming too powerful. She tries to convince Caesar's friend Brutus (Amanda Tudor) to take Caesar down.
This play is decorated with 20th-century girly teenaged mannerisms: hugging, hand-holding, lip-zipping, note-passing, covering eyes with hands. They sing-song "Caesar is afraaaaid!" Brutus, puzzling over her actions toward Caesar, confides to her teddy bear. Casca (Liz Sklar), a conspirator with Cassius and Brutus, carries a flask and a cigarette. The girls' "daggers" include a nail file, scissors, a paring knife, and a letter opener. And yes, more than character is assassinated here. (Matthew Holtzclaw is credited for "Blood Effects.") And lines like "We went to school together!" take on added meaning.
Eight actresses play all the roles; even those in key roles also show up in bit parts. Robbins, who plays the shy soothsayer, also appears as the confident Octavius, Caesar's relative, who in her green sweater comes across as a rising freshman who will someday rule the school. Rebecca Davis plays Antony's associate Lepidus, as well as Calpurnia, Caesar's "wife," who here seems to be a satellite member of the "cool crowd." Whitney Kymball Long portrays Decius Brutus, Volumnius, and Pindarus. All eight actresses are excellent and well-committed in each of their multiple roles; they had better be, as they wear feminine clothing and mannerisms, bear masculine names, and call each other "he" and "him."
Megan Sanders designed the excellent costumes. Ashley Chlebus contributed with her hair and make-up design, as did Kelsey McMahon with her graphic design.
At first I was mentally translating the text into its high school setting—as in "Crown" equals "Class President" or "Homecoming Queen"—but then I stopped that, letting the play take me where it would. I believe in the end the Ancient Roman core won over the modern nuances. What mattered most, however, beyond B.C. Rome versus 1960s America, was the story of how friends turn on each other for the sake of power and freedom. Director Jordan Simmons and producer Tiffany Baker have created a successful experiment in bringing to life the heart of Shakespeare, which we often lose behind the archaic words and ancient settings.