In the 19th century, according to Norrie Epstein’s indispensable The Friendly Shakespeare, students of Latin read Julius Caesar’s Commentaries along with Shakespeare’s play; the two provided context for each other. A couple hundred years later, Latin is no longer required, but the play continues to be a high-school staple, boring generations of kids and infusing them with a hatred for the Bard.
And no wonder. While the play passes school-board muster in that it’s short and has no sex, it’s also talky and grimly static. Only one murder takes place onstage, while the rest are talked about with roughly the same passion as accounting. And there isn’t even the tiniest fart joke, no small feat for Shakespeare.
In its LaVal’s production, SubShakes tries to liven things up by setting the story in fascist Italy; the characters are members of the mafioso. Unfortunately, it’s still Julius Caesar — no mistaken identities, fairies, girls dressed as boys, or even a measly shipwreck to liven things up and conceal uneven acting. What we have is Caesar (Bruce Moody, even better here than he was as Lord Capulet last season), beloved of the people and secretly hated by his lieutenants. The day before his investiture as emperor, two of these men — bitter, jealous Cassius (Stan Spenger) and ambivalent Brutus (Armand Blasi) — decide to take Caesar down. It takes them a long time to take the plunge, however, because Brutus loves Caesar, and agonizes over whether to kill him. Once he’s in, the other plotters quickly agree to ambush Caesar on his way to the Senate.
It’s not as though Caesar hasn’t been warned. A soothsayer (Melanie Curry, tinkly and oddly dispassionate in gypsy fortune-teller garb) has told him to “beware the ides of March.” His wife Calpurnia has dreamt of him bleeding from a thousand cuts, and begged him to stay home. But one of the plotters, Decius, makes light of Calpurnia’s fears, and convinces the big man to ignore his wife and head out into the waiting arms (and knives) of his men.
Brutus takes Caesar’s place, while Caesar’s right-hand man, Antonius (also known as Marc Antony) swears revenge. We know from Antony and Cleopatra about Antony’s eventual entanglement with Cleo and subsequent downfall; here we see him joining with Lepidus and Octavius (they would become known as the Second Triumvirate) to overthrow Brutus.
It’s disheartening that certain things hold true from show to show with SubShakes, especially the difficulty in keeping the characters separate (worsened here by the fact that all of the men are wearing the same sort of clothing and hats, dark glasses, or red scarves covering much of their faces) and the unevenness of the acting. This show is also burdened with perplexing choices made by both actors and director. Armand Blasi, so interesting in past SubShakes shows, plays Brutus as a Brando-esque Godfather, right down to delivering his lines in a barely audible whisper. Stan Spenger’s delivery as Cassius is so choppy it’s distracting. Since the beginning of the play mostly consists of Brutus and Cassius talking to each other, the result is that the first half (other than Joan Bernier’s excellent fiery turn as Portia, and Bruce Moody’s noble-if-unaware Caesar) is pretty dreary.
The second half picks up, post-murder, with the intense presence of John Polak as Antony, whose love for Caesar was much more reliable than that of Cassius and Brutus. Polak’s eulogy for Caesar, from which we get the famous “let slip the dogs of war,” is spine-tingling. When we can hear it, that is. I don’t understand why director Alfredo Fidani, in a space infamous for bad acoustics and the filtered yowling of football fans, makes it even more difficult for the audience to hear the emotional peaks of the play by piling on melodramatic music, which forces the actors to start shouting their lines. All this adds up to a disappointing production. Still, give SubShakes credit for having the guts to stage the scourge of high school in a serious and thoughtful way.