Every era, it seems, is right and ripe for revisiting Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” That’s especially so whenever debates rage about the role and limits of government, or when there’s frequent talk of conspiracies and disputes over facts.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company offers an opportunity to reexamine such matters and more in a modern-dress production fleetly directed by Michael Tolaydo.
Over the summer, virulent protests greeted New York’s Public Theater because Caesar, assassinated halfway through the drama by colleagues fearful he would become a dictator, was made to resemble Donald J. Trump. (Productions around the country in recent years that offered a Barack Obama-like Caesar and, in one case, a Hillary Clinton-suggestive Caesar were not objects of protest.)
Chesapeake Shakespeare’s toga-free staging doesn’t take as obvious a path. There’s nothing specifically 2017 here, leaving theater-goers free to make their own allusions and conclusions.
This concept adds a provocative layer by means of gender-switching. There’s an extra touch of drama when the person delivering the funeral oration for the assassinated Caesar is a powerful woman, and when she joins forces with another powerful woman to avenge his death.
For the most part, all of this updating yields a persuasive take on the original, one that underlines the points the Bard made more than four centuries ago about human virtues and follies. And Tolaydo ensures that one of the play’s most compelling elements — the way it avoids making anyone a 100-percent, no-excuses villain — comes through clearly.
Michael P. Sullivan makes a suitably confident Caesar, but one also sensing deep doubts about where Rome, and his own ambition, might be headed.
Ron Heneghan deftly reveals the gentle, thoughtful nature of the reluctant assassin Brutus, and is equally convincing later when the toll of what he has done catches up with him. The actor makes it easy to appreciate the final assessment of Brutus, that he was “the noblest Roman of them all.”
That assessment is delivered here not by Mark Antony, but Mar Antonia. Vividly portrayed by Briana Manente, the character brings to mind a corporate executive used to having to defer to the men around her, but fully capable of outmaneuvering them.
Tolaydo’s idea of having Antonia perform a postmortem act on Caesar as a means of convincing the conspirators she’s on their side seems like, um, overkill to me. But it’s a striking bit of theater and is carried out boldly by Manente, who goes on to deliver the friends-Romans-countrymen oration with impressive nuance.
As Cassius, Vince Eisenson doesn’t just have the “lean and hungry” look that Caesar finds dangerous, but also the intensity, blended with charm, to lead others toward the fateful Ides of March. Eisenson and Heneghan achieve remarkable eloquence in their big pre-battle scene, making Shakespeare’s poetic language sing.
Caitlin Carbone does affecting work as Brutus’ wife, Portia (the character’s assertion “How weak a thing the heart of woman is” goes beyond ironic in this context). But the actress could use a more commanding persona in her other role as Caesar’s heir, Octavia (Octavius in the original Shakespeare).
Seamus Miller handles his multiple assignments in dynamic fashion; he is particularly vivid as the conspirator Decius.
Imani Turner shows a good deal of promise as Brutus’ servant Lucius, including in the play’s musical moment. (Shakespeare doesn’t specify what “sleepy tune” Lucius sings; the choice here somehow fits — an understated version of Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home.”) The rest of the large cast is more or less reliable.
There are some questionable bits in the production — fanfares in Act 1 that sound straight out of Hollywood toga epics, rather than our day and age; Brutus making the sign of the cross before his final battle.
But most things click, including the patrician pj’s worn by Brutus and Portia (Kristina Martin designed the costumes), as the production puts its engaging stamp on a tragedy that still has so much to teach us about ourselves.
If you go
“Julius Caesar” runs through Oct. 29 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 S. Calvert St. Tickets are $16 to $50. Call 410-244-8570, or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.