Friends, Romans, countrymen, this is not your father's Julius Caesar. Not the production performed at CSUN's Plaza del Sol Performance Hall Tuesday night. With business suits instead of togas, letter openers instead of daggers and rap music covering the pause between acts. This version by The Acting Company is, as the announcer says at the outset, "Shakespeare for a new generation."
It's definitely Shakespeare. Though director Rob Melrose changes the garb and the setting, his characters utter the words Shakespeare wrote, at least most of them. That means the language is still archaic but the meaning is comprehensible, thanks in no small part to the inflections, expressions and gestures of Melrose's players.
It's an open question as to whether altering costumes and props is sufficient to endear the Bard to a new generation. Even with a bank of TV monitors with stylized graphics and characters off to the side texting someone or another, the age-old themes might not fully resonate with a Millennium audience. What is undeniable, though, is that the way Melrose staged this classic tragedy suggests parallels to contemporary American politics that likely would not have otherwise been considered.
Shakespeare's play didn't delve into where Caesar stood on the issues of his time and how that differed from his political foes. It wasn't his policies that made him enemies but the hatred jealousy of his rivals. While Brutus was noble but misguided, Cassius and the rest were envious, shallow, ambitious and narrowly focused on bringing down Caesar at all costs.
Through casting and staging, Melrose suggests the Caesar of ancient Rome is not all that removed from President Obama of modern-day Washington, both dogged by enemies who are more interested in their own power than the good of the nation. Here, though, Caesar pays the price in a Senate meeting room instead of the Forum.
Will even that be enough to broaden the play's appeal to a new generation? Perhaps, but the light attendance in the opening performance couldn't have been a great cause for optimism.
That's unfortunate. The Acting Company, which boosted the careers of Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and Jeffrey Wright, boasts some powerful performances in this production. William Sturdivant, who plays Brutus, demonstrates considerable dramatic range as he moves from determined conspirator to penitent murderer. Zachary Fine breathes fresh life into Mark Antony's funeral oration, part of the character's cunning plan for retribution.
While Sid Solomon as Cassius didn't always have a lean and hungry look, he was more than convincing as the leader of the disloyal opposition. And credit Bjorn DuPaty with an executive demeanor that simultaneously fit the Roman emperor and the American commander-in-chief.
A second performance of Julius Caesar is scheduled for Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Plaza del Sol Performance Hall. Following that, The Acting Company will update another Shakespeare classic, The Comedy of Errors, on Saturday and Sunday.