In the opening moments of the Guthrie Theater's Julius Caesar, a crowd of spectral figures floods across the stage to the cacophonous accompaniment of howling static and disembodied radio voices. They wear dark suits and walk with their heads buried in the daily newspaper, busy and oblivious to the bronze statue that towers ominously overhead. In another instant they are gone, and all that remains is the buzz of the radio. It's a strange, dissonant prelude to Shakespeare's tale of Roman realpolitik, but one that underscores the theme of the Guthrie's production--namely, that tyranny springs eternal in a society that prefers bullets to ballots.
Although the Guthrie's Julius Caesar is a staunchly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's text, director Joe Dowling removes the play from its historical context and sets it instead in a sort of Orwellian netherworld of shadowy cabals and midnight machinations. Recognizable but no longer familiar, the play is peppered with disjunctive anachronisms like World War I uniforms and beer-can hats on the heads of the Dionysian revelers who celebrate Caesar's victorious return to Rome. After the frenetic opening sequence, said exuberant crowd makes merry around the statue of said Caesar in a deep courtyard flanked by industrial scaffolding and framed beneath an imposing Corinthian colonnade of stark, metallic blue. It's the sort of monolithic design that screams fascism. On cue, the man himself (Edwin C. Owens) enters dressed in a white suit, blowing kisses to the adoring crowd and mugging for the camera. Marcus Antonius (Lance Reddick) and his fellow Romans jog around the stage like a toga-clad pep squad. Up in the wings, some nut is yelling something about the Ides of March.
No doubt, Julius Caesar is the most public of Shakespeare's plays. As a meditation on politics and power, however, it is frustratingly ambiguous. Is Caesar an ambitious tyrant and a threat to the pax Romana or merely a deity in decline? Because the conspiracy to commit regicide also smacks of metaphorical patricide (Plutarch alludes to an actual paternal link between Caesar and his "angel" Brutus), we should witness some inkling of the personal motives of the conspirators as well as the political. The play's power, it would seem, relies much more heavily on the dynamic between the principal conspirators and their Caesar than on the sweep of the tragedy that brings them all to ruin.
As a public spectacle, the Guthrie's staging rarely disappoints. The fickle plebeian masses of Rome rush through the aisles shouting and waving fists, Brutus (John C. Vennema) and Marcus Antonius deliver their rabble-rousing orations from high atop the scaffolding, and Caesar's regal dais rises out of the stage as though through divine will.
Unfortunately, in the growing civic chaos, many of Shakespeare's ostensibly magnificent characters end up dwarfed by scenery. As Caesar, Owens delivers a fairly cogent reading but occasionally struggles to convey the sense of patrician grandeur required by the part. He sometimes comes off more as an agitated Lear than the fixed northern star of the Roman world. Caesar is, after all, unlike any other character in Shakespeare: fully cognizant of both his power and his fate, and prepared to submit to assassination to secure the status of godhead. Adding to the trouble is a rather ridiculous slow-motion death scene. As the murder of a king and a totem father, this moment should at the least represent a terrible transgression of taboo. Instead, poor Caesar is pricked full of holes for a long minute, then dropped to the stage like a sack of potatoes.
Were Caesar not the ranking historical figure, Julius Caesar would almost certainly be called The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus. Brutus is certainly the play's most complex character, a model of Roman stoicism who is also a simplified precursor of the Shakespearean hero-villain. Who does not hear echoes of Hamlet in the "It must be by his death" soliloquy or traces of Macbeth in "Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, or a hideous dream?" Vennema's Brutus, by contrast, seems lethargic throughout, acquiescing directly to the conspirators and barely summoning enough passion to keep the rabble awake during his great speech. Without a sense of Brutus's motivation or tortured conscience, we lose the heart of the play.
Lance Reddick fares much better as Marcus Antonius, summoning a wiry, red-eyed intensity for his famous "friends, Romans, countrymen" funeral oration (a brilliant bit of political rhetoric and a must-study for aspiring demagogues). Richard Howard, too, achieves a lean and hungry charisma as conspirator-in-chief Cassius. After a chaotic battle scene or two, the conspirators meet their deserved ends, and Octavius strikes a pose atop the pedestal that once held the statue of Caesar. The message, delivered in the final tableau vivant, is that violence is both the bastard child and progenitor of tyranny. Kill one Caesar and as sure as the sun will rise, another tyrant will take his place.
Julius Caesar runs through April 4 at the Guthrie Theater; (612) 377-2224.