Photo courtesy of Rick Malkin / Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Story by Maria de Guzman / Contributing Writer
Friends. Romans. Countrymen. Lend this play your eyes and ears.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Julius Caesar” made its Murfreesboro debut at MTSU’s Tucker Theatre on Thursday night. Running for three nights only through Feb. 2, this production takes the audience into a reimagined Rome, with characters, settings and sounds that feel familiar, yet appear incredibly different.
“Julius Caesar” tells the story of the fall of the Roman Republic, a groundbreaking political system at the time, being the first to divide power among a group of people rather than just giving it to one person. However, Julius Caesar’s rule as a dictator threatens the republic, with his imminent coronation around the corner. When the tragic hero, Brutus, is led by Cassius and other conspirators to assassinate Julius Caesar, civil war breaks out, leading to questions of self-interest, morals and power.
The Nashville Shakespeare Festival takes place bi-annually across the Middle Tennessee area, running productions in the winter and the summer. Since 1988, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival has kept the production of Shakespeare’s writing relevant, by offering innovative productions. The Festival also runs occasional workshops for adult groups to help exercise creative thinking and communication based on Shakespeare’s timeless themes. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival helps keep Shakespeare’s plays alive by delivering them to a new generation.
When the curtains rise at Tucker Theatre, Rome is presented as a progressive yet shady city; instead of togas and marble slab, the play’s setting is more reminiscent of gangsters and mobs from the 1920s. The conspirators don trench coats and fedoras and carry themselves with the unjustified confidence that Shakespeare exhibits in his writing.
Rome doesn’t just begin and end on the proscenium. Characters entered and exited through the audience with shouts and crashes. During Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, the house lights turned on slightly just as he turned his attention to the audience, capturing their minds and their hearts. The intense fight scenes and blood splatter evoke a terrifying yet thrilling sensation through the audience, a feeling that stays with you long after the scene has finished. The audience interactions throughout this play make the experience more engaging.
Although “Julius Caesar” is traditionally written for an all-male cast, this production features a diverse group of conspirators and Roman citizens, with women getting a chance to draw swords and daggers instead of waiting in the wings. While Christopher Joel Onken’s Brutus and Jordan Gleaves’ Cassius lead the assassination attempt on Caesar, it is Miranda Pepin’s Casca that stands out among the conspirators. Her portrayal as a robust and irate co-conspirator breathes new life to the character, making the first stab of Caesar much more satisfying.
With this modern twist on Shakespeare’s most famous and classic tale, we’re still left to wonder if this political drama is still relevant to our current political and societal climate.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director Denice Hicks seems to think so. In her program note, she writes that “in a time of political animosity and division, (‘Julius Caesar’) provides for me an opportunity to see the worst that can happen: devastating consequences resulting from impulsive and violent actions.”
In an interview with Sidelines, she elaborated further by stating that the play’s message of division, mistrust and deceit leading to distress strongly connects to the current administration’s division.
“And as we learned so many years ago, a country divided will fall, and that’s what happens in this play,” Hicks said. “That’s what I feel like we all fear could happen to the United States of America if we don’t unite.”
Political divisiveness aside, Shakespeare lovers and theatre enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the new direction taken by director Santiago Sosa. The message and aesthetics of this production of “Julius Caesar” will stick with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
The Murfreesboro run of the show is from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2. To purchase tickets, please visit nashvilleshakes.org or visit the Tucker Theatre box office. This shows uses stage blood during choreographed violence scenes that may be disturbing for some members of the audience.
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