Et tu, Butté?
Butte College takes an uneven stab at Julius Caesar
Although the second half of the show dragged somewhat, Butte College’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar still has much to recommend it.
Novice director Jeff Dickenson has wisely elected to place the story in the turbulent early ‘70s: Groups like the Weathermen and the SLA openly evinced a revolutionary and violent intent, while unquestioning faith in national leaders was an absolute for a significant portion of the population, the so-called “silent majority,” and what was wrong with our country was rampant disrespect for “law and order,” the platform that elected Richard Nixon. With the naked confrontations between armed authorities and chanting anti-war demonstrators escalating, it really did seem like a civil war could explode any second.
In Caesar’s Rome, there are similarities: The old republic is in danger of being swept away by the public’s willingness to transform a “civil servant” into a savior; specifically, the elevating of war hero Julius into Caesar “the god.” Thus, Dickenson’s Julius Caesar is suited up like a popular, modern-day politician, with a retinue of crew-cut-sporting, yes-nodding young “Republicans” and a clutch of press and plebs trailing him like groupies, each more than willing to eat whatever his well-manicured hand feeds them.
Still, there are voices of concern and outright dissent: Cassius believes Caesar has overstepped his rights and therefore must be eliminated; Brutus feels, initially anyway, that Caesar has merely committed a few vulgarities—yet it is these mild doubts that Cassius works on until Brutus becomes a willing participant in the conspiracy to kill Caesar.
As often is the case with Butte productions, the level of ability in the performers ranged across the spectrum. At the best end, Allen K. Lunde, as Marcus Brutus, well conveyed the character’s sense of honor, pride of family and concern for the republic. Lunde’s Brutus is a decent man caught in the whirlpool of historic events—whatever course he chooses, he still seems doomed. Lunde’s understanding of Shakespearean dialogue rendered his utterances perfectly natural and believable.
Also quite good were Quentin Colgan as co-conspirator Casca (he managed to get some laughs on a few Shakespearean witticisms), Michelle Lunde as Brutus’ strong, sensible wife Portia, Holly D. Nibley as the gender-switched, conspiracy ringleader Cassius, Marc Shore as Senator Cicero, and the irrepressible Lew Gardner as the “Ides of March” warning Soothsayer (done up here like an anti-war demonstrator).
As the title character, Michael Acosta was fine … in a political-figurehead sort of way. However, one came away with the sense that the language gave him some trouble (not just because of the few times he stammered attempting to utter his lines). Jordan E. Stuhlmueller, as Mark Antony, on the other hand, understood what he was saying, but one only sporadically got the sense of how his character felt. Jason Ryan Simmons showed promise as the savvy Octavius (eventually crowned Caesar Augustus), but his role was pared down so much that the actor didn’t have room to fully develop his character.
On the technical side, from hippies to senators, the costumes perfectly matched the period. Sound and lighting were fairly elaborate, sometimes even overwhelming: During the storm scene, the constant thunder drowned out much of the dialogue, and the repeated flash of the same lightning bolt onto a background scrim almost became unintentionally comic. Still, there were moments of inspiration: During Caesar’s assassination, a deep blood-red light gradually washed the stage (although the last bit of blocking here and the pre-recorded voices of the conspirators emanating from above reminded one somehow of the opening “trial” scene from the first Superman movie—did local actor/director Jerry Miller perhaps contribute this?).
Director Dickenson has wrestled with a giant for his first production. And he and his production have emerged unbruised. Mostly.