nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
August 11, 2008
I've always been very leery of companies that want to present a "fresh take" on Shakespeare, or want to make a play that has been performed successfully for over 400 years "more accessible." Almost all of them make the same mistake of putting concept before content instead of trusting Shakespeare's words to do the job they have been doing oh so well for oh so long. So you can imagine my reservations in sitting down for a one-act, gender-bent version of Julius Caesar. Much to surprise and relief, I was treated to the Guerilla Shakespeare Project's solid production.
The GSP's modus operandi is to distill Shakespeare to its most relevant and modern elements; you will see no mega-budget light show here. It's just you, the actors, and the story—and admittedly not the whole story, but the messages and themes in this particular piece that resonate most effectively with a modern (or post-modern for that matter) audience. Their DIY aesthetic is frankly nothing new in the NYC indie theatre scene, but the quality of this production definitely makes it a standout in the field.
This is a very ambitious endeavor. Running at 90 minutes and played by seven actors, GSP has pared down everything in the play to the bare essentials, tweaking and condensing, removing characters and redefining key relationships. The conspirators are boiled down to Cassius, Brutus, and Casca; Caesar is a woman (as is Casca); Octavius is now her son. With the heavy cutting of the script the show does lose some of its epic scope, but what remains plays well, something along the lines of a West Wing episode in iambic pentameter.
The focus here is on Brutus, a senator and patriot who sees the country he loves on the verge of political upheaval. His reaction to the situation is drastic and violent and the consequences are something that he is utterly unprepared to deal with. You can see shades of the current political climate throughout the play, especially in the assassination of a female leader (though Caesar is more a Bhutto than a Hillary).
Director Jordan Reeves does some very sharp technical maneuvering with the piece, utilizing the thrust stage almost as an in-the-round space. The actors are often full back to one third of the audience but it never lasts long enough to become annoying. Three oil drums comprise the set, serving as podium, bier, throne, and most ingeniously as the sole producer of sound effects. I personally would have liked some music to cover the scene changes as opposed to the many spotlight tableaus, which did become too repetitive. Save for those spotlights, Melissa Mizell's lighting does compliment the show very well. Lea Reeves and Lisa Peacock's costumes are right on as well, not only looking sharp but saying a lot about the characters wearing them.
With a cut this severe some performances do suffer, but the cast is a competent ensemble with some obvious standouts. Jacques Roy as Brutus delivers a very strong, impassioned performance, taking full charge of the stage and delivering the text without artifice. Kim Martin-Cotton as Julius Caesar is a commanding presence as well; in fact hers may have been the most challenging role as the thematic centerpiece. That her assassination is so very disturbing speaks not only to her skill, but to that of the director as well. Kimiye Corwin as Casca deserves notice as well, she turns what is normally a thankless expository role into a sly and dangerous co-conspirator and is always interesting to watch.
The GSP have a lot to be proud of with their NYC debut. However there is room for improvement. In particular the cut of the script may have been too severe. While I was happy to see such pointless characters as Cinna the Poet and Young Cato get the ax, I was equally dismayed that Portia was given such short shrift. I was happy to see the cobbler speech in Act 1, Scene 1 go the way of the dodo, but felt that some important speeches about why Caesar should be killed were left out, taking away some strength from the plot. The news here is primarily good, all things considered. It's still the same story, and well told. If you're a fan of the play or just a fan of Shakespeare, you'll have to work pretty hard to be disappointed by this show.