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Reviewed by:
  • Julius Caesarby Folger Theatre
  • Noel Sloboda
Julius CaesarPresented by the Folger Theatreat the Elizabethan Theatre, Washington, D.C. October 28–December 7, 2014. Directed by Robert Richmond. Set by Tony Cisek. Costumes by Mariah Hale. Lighting by Jim Hunter. Sound and Music Composition by Eric Shimelonis. With Shirine Babb (Portia), Louis Butelli (Cassius), Anthony Cochrane (Brutus), Maurice Jones (Mark Antony), Nafeesa Monroe (Soothsayer), Michael Sharon (Julius Caesar), Deirdra LaWan Starnes (Calphurnia), William Vaughan (Lucius), and others.

Robert Richmond’s dark, highly-stylized Julius Caesaron the Elizabethan stage set out to make the Roman tragedy relevant for a twenty-first century audience by centering on the consequences of overgrown political ambition across the ages. During the first half of the show, the stagecraft and costume design conveyed an indeterminate period, perhaps the not-so-distant past or maybe the near future. As Richmond explained in the program, “Our Rome is one that moves through time.” This nonspecific staging helped open up the world of the play to contemporary theatergoers, and it was appropriate in that Shakespeare’s vision of the Republic said more about England during the period in which he wrote than [End Page 163]about pre-Christian Italy. The locale became more sharply defined after intermission, shifting to a modern, war-torn landscape, and as the scope contracted the urgency ebbed somewhat, though not entirely.

Throughout Richmond’s production, the expanded role of the Soothsayer (Nafeesa Monroe) powerfully destabilized temporal boundaries. Imbued with mystical qualities, she bore witness to schemes and spectacles of violence in Rome, performing a choral function. When the audience first entered, Monroe was there waiting, seated on stage, swaddled in dark, heavy robes that concealed her features. She remained motionless so that she looked like a statue. But as soon as the lights went down, she came to life, rising to present a sacrificial bowl toward the house, eliciting gasps from many who had believed her simply part of the scenery. The stage was then flooded by a number of equally foreboding figures, all shrouded in robes like those of the Soothsayer. Portents of unrest to come, these ominous creatures wheezed and muttered snatches of prophecy while they arranged themselves to face the house, lifting bowls above their heads—to us or perhaps to the gods—as Monroe had just done. They would have been at home in a horror film, though in appearance they most closely resembled the fantastical Ringwraiths of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring(2001). As Brutus and Cassius entered, the haunting beings gradually receded, some promptly departing, others standing at the periphery for a few minutes before fading into the wings. They would come and go over the next two hours. Yet, the Soothsayer was always present, observing first the fall of Caesar, then that of Brutus. She embodied the “hideous dream” that the latter statesman sees lurking “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion” (2.1.65, 63–64). When characters met violent ends, she offered a blessing, sprinkling near the departed blood-red petals plucked from her sacrificial bowl. In the second half of the show, this bowl was flipped and revealed to be an empty helmet, establishing the connection between political turmoil and war.

Made of steel gray and hard edges, the set by Tony Cisek added to the unsettling mood. Two massive columns framing the proscenium were squared, not rounded like those that adorned the Globe stage and much of the real Forum, with corners that looked sharp enough to wound. Several steps led offstage at various angles, including a central stair running between the two columns. Cisek thus mapped out various paths to prominence, while suggesting the possibility of political (and in some cases literal) dead ends: character movement up and down tracked shifts in confidence and prestige. Early on, Caesar ascended—followed closely by Mark Antony—looking down on the uncomfortable Cassius and Brutus [End Page 164]below. Pointing to a desire to rise in station, the other conspirators later trod the same stair with daggers in hand and chanted “Beware” in the raspy tones of the Soothsayer and her hooded companions...


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