Four hundred years have passed since the death of William Shakespeare, and 2,060 since the death of the subject of his great tragedy "Julius Caesar," but both live on as specters in the meadow behind the Evergreen Museum, where the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory holds performances in the evening as the sun sets behind the tall trees.
As with all Baltimore Shakespeare Factory productions, "Julius Caesar" is staged and performed closely to how it would have been seen by Shakespeare's audiences at the Globe Theatre when it premiered in 1599. That means, among other things, universal (even) lighting and a very minimal set—the only set, really, is a wooden platform and occasionally the surrounding mounds of grass.
The most prominent departure here is April Forrer's costume design—not a toga in sight. Director Chris Cotterman writes in his program notes that he briefly considered dressing his actors in modern suits and ties. During this unprecedented election season, it's easy to reframe Shakespeare in that contemporary context. Both critics of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (but especially Donald Trump) fear their respective ascents to dictatorship, and many are likely plotting or at least longing for their deaths, just as Brutus, Cassius, and their naive followers assassinated Caesar in fear of his ambition and power. To compare Caesar's rise and fall to those of modern American leaders would be the obvious approach, and possibly a rewarding one in some respects, but this is a more thoughtful reading of Shakespeare's intentions in writing a historical drama (not to mention, to compare Trump to Caesar would be a disservice to the legacy of the latter, who was an astute military commander let alone a functional politician whose only qualities shared with Trump are creating fears of despotism and the will of some for his death).
So instead, the actors wear American colonial garb, a nod to our country's tumultuous history, and, Cotterman writes, to recreate for a 21st century American audience the connection Shakespeare's audiences experienced seeing their founders onstage (although English audiences were less directly related to Caesar and his contemporaries, London was founded by Romans not long after Caesar's rule).
But really, the value in a modern Shakespeare production is not the context wherein it unfolds—that's why they've remained relevant for centuries and counting. Cotterman and BSF understand this, and that's why they don't hit the audience over the head with the colonial thing and instead place importance on the core of Shakespeare: his poetry and the complexity it creates within his characters. Without an elaborate set, costuming, lighting, and the rest, the production relies heavily on the performances, as it should. And the actors deliver. While some struggle to project their voices over the croak of crickets in the nearby woods, the cast members treat each character with sensitivity, carry the heavy weight of the script as if it were their first language, and engage with the modest stage as if it were an elaborate moving set. Some actors, like standout Josh Thomas, play as many as seven roles with ease and consistent variation.
Anne Shoemaker is remarkable in the title role—it's a shame Caesar is only alive for a few scenes. Her Caesar is stoic yet vulnerable, intelligent yet blind, all at once. If this production of "Julius Caesar" was running decades ago, I would commend BSF for casting a woman in the role of a fearsome political machine. In 2016, I applaud the choice because Shoemaker is brilliant in the role.
"Caesar" points to how we deify historical figures and separate them from their fragile humanity, when really one's political and private lives are in many ways inseparable. The Bard would argue that it is foolish to overlook the friendship between Caesar and Brutus (Shannon Ziegler), the person who led the conspirators in Caesar's assassination; just as it is unwise to look at, say, the achievements of George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson while disregarding their ownership of slaves. The effect of one's private activities and relationships on one's public work—or, conversely, in the case of Brutus, the attempted separation of those spheres—speaks volumes to the kind of people historical figures were.
Not only should icons be remembered in light of their private selves, but in light of their attempts to reject those sides of their identities. Both Caesar and Brutus snub their wives—Calphurnia (Liz Galuardi), Caesar's wife, is infertile and cannot bear him an heir, so she plays no role in his public life; and Brutus' wife Portia (Katharine Vary) can barely get his attention unless she cuts herself for him, because apparently Brutus thinks that's hot.
God forbid a man does exhibit signs of vulnerability (aka humanity) as the illusion of godliness he has taken years to cultivate will come under fire. Cassius (Utkarsh Rajawat)—who tricks Brutus into joining his plot to kill Caesar by planting forged letters allegedly from the Roman citizens complaining of Caesar's inadequacy as a ruler—doesn't really seem motivated by fear for Rome's future so much as disapproval for Caesar's physical weakness. How can a man who trembles and suffers from seizures—"'tis true, this god did shake"—be more fit to rule than Cassius himself? Cassius, who, like pretty much everyone else in this story ends up with a blade in his gut, demonstrates the fatal error of "masculinity so fragile."
Mark Antony (Fred Fletcher-Jackson) is the only lead character to make it out of the Ides of March alive, and the only one to trust his passion, no matter where it sways. Cassius, Brutus, and Caesar try to live wholly as their political personae, but Shakespeare shows that it is impossible to do so. In treating what he believes to be the will of the Roman people as greater than his relationship with Caesar, greater than himself, Brutus fails to recognize the importance of his own being and annihilates his existence. He fails to see that even the gods must shake.
"Julius Caesar" runs through Aug. 14 outdoors in the Meadow at Johns Hopkins Evergreen Museum & Library and Aug. 19-21 indoors in the Great Hall Theater at St. Mary's Community Center. For more information, visit shakespearefactory.com.