War, sedition, lies, divisiveness, and the looming potential for one man to become leader of a morally torn nation. Sounds like a certain upcoming election. Perhaps, but these concerns also relate to a social and political impasse that occurred before the time of Christ. These are matters that surround the life and death of Roman general and statesman, Julius Caesar. So much for learning from the past.
Nevada Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar opens in a way very similar to how it probably opened in 1599. Flickus (Danny Gehr) and Flackus (Shane Picininni), not actual characters in Caesar, give a pre-show introduction. Director Cameron Crain says this type of historical preface was standard practice in Shakespeare’s time. Gehr and Picininni wrote the preamble, and in it they tell us that Caesar was an architect, a war hero, a prolific writer and a political genius—a bit of a “man behind the mammoth” campaigning to warm us up to the Caesar character (Dale Fast) who, in the play, appears to be little more than a smiles-and-handshakes, all-bravado-and-no-personality politician.
Caesar’s first speech, which involves his friend and biggest supporter Mark Antony (Joshua Jessup) offering the crown to Caesar three times and Caesar refusing, takes place outside the frame of the play, a technique Shakespeare used often. All that is heard are the cheers of a crowd beyond the stage, while Cassius (Kirk Gardner), Caesar’s biggest foe (unknown to Caesar) tries to convince Caesar’s good friend Marcus Brutus (John Hadder) that Caesar is becoming too ambitious and must be stopped.
Cassius chips away at Brutus’ loyalties, and Brutus finally agrees to go along with Caesar’s assassination for the sake of Rome. However, this conflicted character manages to retain some of his dignity; of the physical murder, Brutus says, “Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers … Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.”
After the horrific deed is done, Antony, to the dismay of Cassius, gives a moving speech at Caesar’s funeral—"Friends, Romans, Country-men, lend me your ears"—and the Roman plebeians are soon out for the conspirators’ blood.
The actors performances were tailored and unique, impressively so for a dress rehearsal. Hadder, really the central character of the play, portrays a Brutus noble and weakened, psychologically damaged because of being constantly at odds with himself. Fast’s Caesar is everything we Americans know politicians to be, which is usually slightly more android than human. And Jessup’s Antony is everything we want in our politicians but don’t really expect anymore—compassion, humility and valor.
During a post-rehearsal discussion of whether or not jeans, a T-shirt and a suit jacket were appropriate attire for Antony, Crain said, “Yes, definitely … Antony was James Dean before there was James Dean.” Everyone agreed that Antony was smooth, and the jeans-and-jacket look made him the people’s, and the play’s, hero.
The play’s message is no doubt a timely one. It examines the danger inherent in politics becoming excessively divisive. Regardless of who your candidate of preference is in the upcoming election, Julius Caesar is a reminder that it’s best not to let the unsubstantiated rumors of friends and/or other politicians color your judgment when it comes time to elect, or assassinate, the man of your choice.