Studio 58's Julius Caesar stays cerebral

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      By William Shakespeare. Directed by Scott Bellis. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, February 4. Continues until February 26

      Because Julius Caesar is all about moral ambiguity, it can be hard to get your bearings with this play. In this Studio 58 production, director Scott Bellis muddies the water further with cross-gender casting that feels more arbitrary than illuminating.

      Despite its title, Julius Caesar is really about Brutus. Cassius convinces Brutus to lead an assassination plot against Caesar. Both conspirators fear that Caesar will make himself king, destroying the Roman republic. While the manipulative Cassius is more clearly driven by jealous resentment of Caesar’s status, Brutus makes a credible claim to dispassionate reason: he must murder his friend to defend the state. Still, when it comes, the killing feels weakly justified: Caesar’s opponents suspect him of inappropriate ambition, but he hasn’t acted on it. Because Shakespeare stymies emotional identification, he creates an intellectual opportunity to examine the murkiness of our motivations, political and otherwise.

      That said, storms of emotion wrack the story; it’s full of magic, murder, and auguries that everyone interprets to their own ends. Lions stalk the streets and Rome falls into bloody civil war. So, in a way, the play is about the chaos of the barely known and half understood, the unresolved clash of passion and logic.

      Under Bellis’s direction, the student cast in this Studio 58 production does an admirable job of finding the sense in the text. Andrea Houssin makes a forceful, intelligent Brutus. And, late in the play, when cracks begin to form in the character’s stoic exterior, she shows us honest glimpses of Brutus’s vulnerability and self-doubt. I also particularly enjoyed the authority of Leslie Dos Remedios’s Caesar, the tenderness Katey Hoffman brings as Brutus’s servant, Lucius, and the naturalness with which Stephanie Moroz speaks the dialogue of Portia, Caesar’s wife. For me, the standout characterization in this production is Tim Carlson’s portrait of Brutus’s friend, Mark Antony. Carlson’s richly flexible voice helps him to express a compelling depth of passion.

      Overall, though, Bellis’s actors are better at finding the logic of the words than the blood and guts beneath them. Lindsay Winch’s Cassius, for instance, always makes step-by-step sense but Winch’s portrait doesn’t display an intuitive understanding of Cassius’s twisted nature.

      The sense of distance I felt watching this production also has to do with the vague rules of the cross-gender casting. In this production, women play many of the male roles, but not all of them. On the other hand, the script’s only two female characters—Portia and Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia—are both played by women. So what’s the point? I remember seeing an all-female production of Glengarry Glenn Ross in which the clear disjuncture illuminated both male and female stereotypes. And a production in which actors were clearly cast according to their masculine and feminine qualities, as opposed to their sex, could be revealing. But no clear set of rules applies here and the results feel half-baked.

      Amir Ofek’s tilted square of a set is elegantly minimalistic and it’s beautifully ornamented by Alan Brodie’s lights and Michael Sider’s video design. Owen Belton’s ominous music sets the perfect tone right off the top.

      In this Julius Caesar, I got the head; I wanted more of the viscera.

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