Quick Review: Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is currently running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier in Chicago. Here are a few thoughts after watching the show this past weekend:

1. For me, the primary appeal of the play was in the modern retelling of the story. Several parts stood out. First, before the play started, there were a number of characters from the crowd out and about on the stage doing everything from running a hot dog stand, trying to get people to sign a petition, to holding pro-Caesar signs, to trying out a skateboard. This helped foreshadow the important role of the crowd in the play but also added some levity. Second, the comparisons to the United States of today are intriguing. The play was set in Washington, Marc Antony was cast as a prizefighter, and the battle scenes in the end looked like urban warfare you might see on the nightly news. Actually, the themes of power, honor, and the line between being a popular leader and a tyrant would resonant in many nations today. I don’t envy artists who have to freshen up plays and other cultural works that many people are familiar with but

2. The second act, which mainly consists of running conflict between Antony and Octavius versus Brutus and Cassius, was more like a war movie than a play. The scenes effectively looked like American military encampments, fighting in the streets looked like Modern Warfare (complete with a burned out and flipped over car on the stage as well as a defaced Caesar poster where he was made to look like the devil), and there was a real edge to the action. It is hard to pick up this kind of tension from simply reading the play (though this may be simply my recollection from first reading this in high school) and this kind of quick moving action can be hard to reproduce on the stage.

3. The favorable review in the Chicago Tribune suggested Brutus should have been played with a more tortured approach:

Brutus here is played by a very capable British actor named John Light, a handsome, hyperarticulate, brooding fellow whose speeches are filled with smarts and context. Light is making his American debut in an Americanized concept with a pretty pathetic American accent. That, one can forgive him. He could be doing a political Piers Morgan (a redundancy?). But it’s harder to see past the deeper problem: Light seems to miss one of the most fundamental aspects of Brutus: a good and decent man who loves his country. Light’s Brutus is certainly tortured by what is and is not expedient, fair enough, but tortured ain’t the whole picture of Mr. B.

Light doesn’t let you feel in your gut that requisite inherent decency and thus when J.C asks that famous question, one’s mind goes to, “Really? What makes him different from all the others? Where did we see that?”

However, I wonder if this doesn’t also feed into the modern interpretation of this play. Do our conflicted heroes of today really reflect on their emotions? Or do we expect them to grimly move forward and finish the job? I’m thinking of James Bond here and his more resolute nature. Tortured modern heroes may not have the time to be tortured; there are often more immediate concerns and the next action scene awaits.

4. There was a lot of blood in the killing of Caesar. Enough blood that most of the intermission involved several stagehands disinfecting the stage, scrubbing the blood out of the floor, and wiping things clean. (Note: there were no splash zone seats but it felt really really close in the third row.)

5. The setting for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is hard to beat. Even on a cold February day, Navy Pier was an enjoyable place to be with a decent crowd all throughout, places to eat, and good views of the city. (Note: parking in the off-season is noticeably cheaper and plentiful.) Here is a picture of the view out of the southwest corner of the theater (apologies for the glare):


In my opinion, this theater is one of the best things Navy Pier has going for it so I hope it does well and even expands its offerings.

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