by Hedy Weiss
When: Through March 24
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Here is the incendiary little idea that came to mind as I watched British director Jonathan Munby's emphatically contemporary, alternately intimate and spectacle-filled version of "Julius Caesar" that opened Wednesday night at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Why not video the production, dub it into Arabic, Russian, Belorussian, any number of African languages and many others, and then send it out via all the relevant social media as a cautionary tale? It would go viral.
Of course Shakespeare's plays have already made their way into all of these places. But "Julius Caesar" certainly does seem custom-made for them at the moment -- and perhaps far too dangerous to get an airing. As for its relevance to THIS country? Well, we've had our share of assassinations, but we also have our safeguards.
I confess that the "pre-show" for this production had me worried. It smacked of a grade school intro as "the masses" gathered beneath the steps of the massive white marble Roman Forum set by Alexander Dodge, and a political button-seller and hotdog vendor worked the street alongside placard holders and flash-mob dancers. But happily things more or less settled down as soon as Shakespeare was allowed to take over.
The story here is straightforward: Caesar (David Darlow), a military man of great accomplishments and considerable maturity, is being tempted with a crown. He demurs, but one senator, Cassius (Jason Kolotouros) suspects he really wants to seize such power and he proceeds to convince his brother-in-law, Brutus (John Light), an admirer of Caesar, that it is their patriotic duty to murder their leader and save the Roman republic.
The assassination indeed goes forward in exceptionally bloody fashion. And the manipulative Cassius, and the more ambivalent, morally high-minded Brutus, shrewdly decide to permit Caesar's loyal supporter, Marc Anthony (the easily eloquent Dion Johnstone, a veteran of Canada's Stratford Festival), to preside at the funeral, believing he will give them "cover." Instead, his subtle tribute to Caesar results in chaos in the streets. And civil war is set in motion -- much as we have seen the scenario play out, in one variation or another, so many times in recent years.
Munby's production can feel somewhat hyperbolic and cliched in the big action scenes. But the crucial arguments between Cassius and Brutus are expertly done. And in an exceptionally large cast, there is great clarity in many moments: From the wily Casca (the ever riveting Larry Yando as a crucial turncoat senator, as well as the show's expert vocal coach); to the heated relationship between Brutus and his perceptive wife, Portia (the splendid Brenda Barrie); to the sweet trust between Brutus and his innocent young aide, Lucius (a most winning Alex Weisman); to the clearly shallow character of Caesar's young successor, Octavius (Samuel Taylor); and to the madwoman Soothsayer (haunted and haunting vocalizing by McKinley Carter).
Chicago Shakespeare's audiences are by now well aware that the playwright remains our contemporary in the most uncanny ways. So all the extra, overly obvious bells and whistles and "signs of our time" seem unnecessary. And really, if you've got the Roman Forum as your backdrop at least give us a gelato stand.