When I first read “Julius Caesar” in high school, I used adjectives like “dramatic,” “dialogue-driven” and even “slow” to describe the play. I would have never thought about using the word “cool.” However, the Théâtre National de Bretagne, a theater company based in France, put on a production at the Power Center that seemed to have only “cool” in mind. Cigarettes, wine, black suits, jazz, indoor sunglasses … the production seemed to transport the audience back to the trends of the 1960s.
Although the setting, names and dialogue all stayed true to the spirit of the original play, everything else was different. The minimal stage design coupled with the abundance of suits created a chic atmosphere for the actors to recite dialogue that didn’t exactly seem to be from the JFK era. What did come from it, though, was the casualness with which the play opened; two actors strolling onto the stage, wine in hand, with the audience lights still on. I couldn’t tell if this was the beginning of the play, or if they were stumbling on stage after someone had replaced the grape juice in their wine glasses with actual wine. Instead of incorporating a binary between the beginning of the show and parts after, director Arthur Nauzyciel chose to ease into it.
Although Shakespearean English may not be the easiest dialect to understand, I actually found it fascinating in the context of a more modern era. It provided a nice bit of commentary on how jealousy and power are just as present in current politics as they were hundreds of years ago. Although the actors are in black suits and listening to jazz on the couch, their messages remain the same – even when togas are replaced with suits, the idea of jealousy in politics remains as constant now as it did over 2,000 years ago.
Despite the suits, the set and the champagne, what really sold this atmosphere was the live jazz trio positioned downstage right, consisting of guitar, upright bass and the intoxicating voice of vocalist Marianne Solivan. The songs were all contemplative, yet also trance-like. The musicians created a dark and warm soundscape that proved to be full yet not too busy. The group often came in between scenes, or sometimes broke up a scene. The only complaint I have about the trio is that they didn’t play enough. They created a fantastic, live atmosphere, yet at the end of the first and second half of the performance, the trio wasn’t even on stage. Intense soliloquies and monologues were accompanied by atmospheric post-rock and, in one case, some sort of aggressively alternative track that took me out of the 1960s setting.
As far as the actors and the dialogue itself, I found myself pretty impressed with many of the actors’ performances. In particular, Mark Montogomery (“Law & Order”, “Mamma Mia!”) as Cassius and Daniel Pettrow (“Black Battles with Dogs”, “Robert Zucco”) as Mark Anthony gave extraordinarily compelling performances. Extended Shakespearean monologues can sometimes drag on, but these performers inserted a particular energy into their performances that kept me interested. Pettrow’s speech at Caesar’s funeral was one of the best monologues in the play, displaying tings of humor and pathos in perfect dosages.
Because the play is very much dependent upon monologues (the only scenes with dynamic movement are Caesar’s death and the death of the conspirators), their delivery is even more important in order to maintain audience engagement. Most of the scenes don’t involve the events taking place themselves, but rather are retelling of what happened or discussions of the future. I just wish some of the monologues had a bit more energy or movement to them. Some of the speeches given by Brutus felt a bit lifeless because there was hardly any movement to break up multiple lines of dialogue. Given the modern atmosphere, it would have fit the aesthetic a bit more with slightly more vibrance in motion.