Cassius is going to make Brutus an offer he can’t refuse in Shakespeare on the Lawn’s “Julius Caesar.” The classic will receive a 1940s urban spin — a gangster aesthetic — in what Jess Miller, director and second-year College student, hopes is a happy medium between relevance and distance from the politics of 2018.
“When people ask me to describe it concisely, I usually say ‘The Godfather’ or film noir,” Miller said. “The reason I chose that is because I didn’t want to directly connect it to the politics of today, with Donald Trump and all of these modern political figures, but I also didn’t want to underplay the universality of the themes in the show. I didn’t want to set it all the way back in ancient Rome.”
Though an ambiguous urban setting may seem a far cry from ancient Rome, it is not so at odds with the play itself — which mentions Elizabethan doublets rather than ancient Roman attire — nor with the history of “Julius Caesar” portrayals. Miller cited Orson Welles, the well-known director of “Citizen Kane,” who directed a 1937 theater adaptation of “Julius Caesar.” His adaptation “Caesar” portrayed the titular character and his cohort as fascist dictators in sync with the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
The Public Theater in New York also adapted “Julius Caesar” in summer 2017. This Caesar resembled Donald Trump, and Calpurnia — Caesar’s wife — resembled Melania Trump. The production incited enough controversy to prompt press-amplified conversations about the parallels between “Julius Caesar” and today, as well as corporate sponsors Delta and Bank of America to pull funding from the Public Theater.
These easy parallels, however, made Miller feel an immediate modern setting would be too expected, not to mention inextricable from the viral Public Theater production. Through his adaptation, Miller aims to frustrate audience expectations — to emphasize the play’s themes of friendship, loyalty and love, not just politics — beneath that gangster allure.
However, “Julius Caesar” presents a new set of challenges for a cast well-versed in comedy. Because the last Shakespeare on the Lawn drama was “Hamlet” in Spring 2016, many actors have yet to perform in a tragedy.
Fourth-year Engineering student Jake Mathews takes on the role of Caesar after directing last semester’s comedy “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Prior to directing “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Mathews also acted in comedic plays, which he calls his element. The transition of many cast members from a funny to serious personality has been surprising, for while missteps in comedy may lend themselves to a new joke with little emotion lost, Mathews said tragedy requires a different composure.
“In rehearsals like this, it’s really important that even if somebody does misspeak or forgets a line, that you really stay in character,” Mathews said. “Otherwise the whole momentum of the scene can be thrown off and you are not getting the caliber of performance that everybody is capable of.”
Early rehearsals do not have the benefits of set design or costumes to encourage the gangster mindset, but the use of candy cigarettes as props already inspire fun interactions — such as Cassius offering Brutus a cigarette, which he politely refuses — that are sure to light up the stage without losing the play’s gravity.
A high-caliber dramatic performance could be crucial for Shakespeare on the Lawn, which just voted to perform “Romeo in Juliet” in fall 2018. The play will have an interracial theme, and Mathews said it is important for the success of this upcoming project that “Julius Caesar” showcases the organization’s mettle.
“For this [show] to transition into tragedy is rather unexpected for the people in the organization and outside who come to watch the show, but I think that everybody is welcoming it,” Mathews said. “The message that SotL is trying to put out there will be a little better received after a show that has represented that we don’t just do comedies all the time.”
Shakespeare on the Lawn will perform “Julius Caesar” Thursday, March 29 through Saturday, March 31 at 8 p.m. in the Student Activities Building.