Chicago Shakespeare Theater: “Julius Caesar”

theater-julius-caesarAssassination, betrayal, politics—“Julius Caesar” has a lot of potential, but in this modern retelling, the audience is left looking for the heart of the production.

The story is familiar; Caesar rises to power after a successful military campaign. But the people’s wish to crown him king threatens the new republic. Senators, including Cassius and Brutus, conspire to kill their friend to save the country.

The set and costumes are distinctly modern, with cell phones documenting the early mayhem in a lively street scene that opens the play. Microphones, lecterns and banners give the political undercurrents weight, but when the scene moves to more intimate settings, like the home of Brutus, the actors on the spare set still feel like they’re in a public place, not like a husband and wife trying to communicate their longing for connection.

The first act ends with the dramatic murder of Caesar, but then, as is a problem with many renditions of this play, the second act has no urgency. British director Jonathan Munby fills the set with SWAT-team costumes, gunfire, explosions and general mayhem, but the audience seemed unengaged. At one particularly over-the-top death (there are many), you could hear inappropriate laughter scatter throughout the crowd.

At two-and-a-half hours, which includes intermission, the play felt long. I wanted to care about Brutus, played by John Light, and his conflict between friendship and patriotism, but never felt that connection to his character. The other conspirators, in nearly identical suits and then combat gear, are essentially interchangeable.

For an evening of inventive, interesting staging, this production of “Julius Caesar” will satisfy. It has a cool, modern vibe that will appeal to audiences who have seen the play many times and want to be surprised with something new. However, if you love theater that connects you to the characters and makes you wonder and worry about their fates, this is probably not the play for you.

 

William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” runs through March 24 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. For information and to purchase tickets, call 312-595-5633 or visit their website.