Ashland’s Julius Caesar: Ambition’s Debt is Paid

Amanda Dehnert’s Ashland production – by far the most powerful and original “Julius Caesar” I’ve seen – is like a jolt of black coffee: dark, strong, bitter, pungent. A nerve-jangling wake-up call; a bleak play for bleak times.

To set the somber tone and transition us out of the shiny Ashland summer, the theater entryway is lined with dozens of stark photo banners of assassinated leaders – everyone from Xerxes to Gandhi to JFK. In their grainy black-and-white mug shots they look more like FBI ‘wanted’ posters than martyred icons.

Once inside the theater it gets even bleaker. Scenic designer Richard Hay, who has confected many a lavish set in his 54 years at OSF, here goes minimalist. He strips the black-box New Theater right down to its bare cinderblock walls and surrounds the action on all four sides with audience seating, like an Elizabethan bear pit. By way of props, he allows himself just a few bare wooden stiles and crates.

Lightsmaster Robert Peterson largely foregoes fancy overhead spots in favor of onstage klieg lights and flatly matter-of-fact houselights. The net effect is somewhere between Bertholt Brecht and “Blade Runner.” Accordingly, costume designer Linda Roethke dresses the cast in Army/Navy chic, all smudgy grays and browns, like a grunge band.

These tatterdemalion punks mill about, incongruously enough, amidst the summer-togged audience as we file into the theater. They chat us up as though at a church picnic rather than the start of a five-act tragedy. The idea seems to be to convince us that these characters are only human, after all.

It’s a lie, of course. They’re not human; they’re politicians. At least the protagonists are, including Caesar, Anthony and Cassius. Their greed/fear/envy calculus is colder and bolder than ours. Among them only Brutus betrays a scintilla of altruism, but maybe even he is fooling himself.

Fooling us, though, is what these politicians are all about. They need us for their plebiscitary “mandates” to do what they damn please. That makes us complicit in their depredations, whether we like it or not.

Lest we forget our “place,” the title character addresses us directly before even a line of Shakespearean dialogue is uttered: please turn off all cellphones, and don’t fail to yell “Hail Caesar” whenever cued from the stage. And, sure enough, we holler obediently, like a tractable mob, no matter how queasy we may feel about it.

All the queasier since, between scenes, the actors plump themselves right down amongst us – blood-smeared assassins, Great Ceasar’s Ghost et al – to await their next turn onstage. Even their accents sound uncomfortably like ours. No British orotundities here; just plain, flat, American phonemes, C-Span dialect. Some of the voices are almost recognizable from our daily newscasts.

Take Caroline Shaffer, who admirably played Caesar in the performance I saw. She understudied for Vilma Silva, who (judging by her prior OSF roles) might have turned in a steelier, Nancy Pelosi-type performance. But Shaffer sugar-coats her Caesar with an “aw, shucks” veneer of diffidence to mask the adamantine core, sort of like Hillary back in her 1990s hair-band phase. (The gender reassignment of the role gives a whole new dimension to Caesar’s patent blend of deified hubris and vulnerability).

Then there’s Gregory Linington’s portrayal of Cassius. Try to imagine a “lean and hungry” Karl Rove – same cynical realism, same scorched-earth partisanship, but with a skulking self-effacement in lieu of Rovian grandstanding.

In his rendering of Mark Anthony, Danforth Comins presents the ultimate spin-doctor. How deftly he pivots from feigned comity with the assassins’ junta to vows of bloody vengeance. Or again, how briskly he turns from his tearful eulogy to a gleeful gloat about the mob he’s let loose: “Mischief, thou art afoot/Take thou what course thou wilt.”

But Anthony’s masterpiece of spin is the famous eulogy itself. In a mere 100-odd lines of blank verse, he turns his listeners from liberty-loving Roman republicans to rabid storm-troopers of authoritarian Caesarism. Swept along on the populist tide, even we 21st century American theatergoers must “lend him [our] ears” – and our voices – joining, on cue, in the general roar of “Hail, Caesar!”

Against such an undertow, how can Brutus (Jonathan Haugen) hold his ground? He’s too balanced, judicious and conciliatory to withstand Anthony’s Swift-boating. It’s precisely these qualities that lend him so much public prestige that Cassius feels he must recruit him to legitimize the coup. But, “electable” though he may be, Brutus lacks the spine to rule. In a world where a lady Caesar wears the dictatorial pants, no coincidence that they’ve dressed Brutus in a skirt – an odd little pleated kilt, jet black.

Haugen captures the character’s dogged optimism, the audacity of hope-against-hope, riding a trajectory of stymied decency all the way down into his self-generated fug of war at Phillippi. All very well for Anthony, after driving Brutus to suicide, to pronounce him “the noblest Roman of them all.” But look who’s talking.

For there’s no single, unequivocal hero in the murky world of this play. Nor yet any all-purpose villain we can blame for the whole tragedy – unless it be ourselves, the fickle mob, ever-ready for spin and counter-spin. As Cassius tells us, right in Act One, “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

“Julius Caesar” plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, through Nov. 6. For ticket information, visit the festival’s website. For more reviews by Lincoln Kaye, please click here.

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

Lincoln Kaye

Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

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