— Production poster
Tracey Powers’ decision to adapt and compress Julius Caesar for an all-female cast makes good sense. JC is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays with many of his most quotable lines. It has only two female characters, both of them wives whose sole function is to stand by their man. The principal male characters get to make great speeches and perform physical violence. And a good deal of the play—in fact most of it post-Caesar’s assassination—is eminently trim-able.
Powers’ script for J. Caesar resembles the versions of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice produced last decade by Stephen Drover’s Pound of Flesh Theatre: cut to a lean, intense one act capable of being performed on a bare stage by seven actors, or in this case actresses. And like Drover’s productions, this one, directed by James MacDonald, pays off handsomely for the most part.
In my reading of the play the real protagonist is Brutus rather than Caesar, who is killed a third of the way through. Brutus is “the noblest Roman of them all.” His nobility and apparent integrity, and the respect accorded him by the people, make him the linchpin of the assassination conspiracy. He’s a thinker, an intellectual like Hamlet, for whom Brutus seems a kind of Shakespearean dry run.
Caroline Cave is superb as Brutus. I don’t think we’ve seen her in Vancouver since The Syringa Tree, one of the best performances in the Playhouse’s 49 years. Like her role as Judith Shakespeare’s sister Susanna in Miss Shakespeare, with which J. Caesar runs in rep, Brutus is a little more cautious and modest than her peers: vain Caesar (Amanda Lisman), hot-headed Cassius (Medina Hahn), passionate, calculating Antonia (Tracey Power). Brutus rationalizes her own murderous treachery like crazy, and she shows terrible judgment vis à vis Antonia. But Cave makes her magnetic. You can’t take your eyes off her.
Lisman is also excellent, her Caesar sick with a kind of joyous egotism and fatalism; and with her gorgeous long red hair she makes a vivid ghost, haunting Brutus. Hahn’s Cassius and Pippa Mackie’s Casca are solid as the co-conspirators. Power is full value for Antonia’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” but she tends to get a little shrieky and her voice goes very thin when she yells. Erin Moon plays both imploring wives, Calpurnia and Portia, the two women equivalent to one male character.
Susinn McFarlen, as a chorus, is largely drowned out by Steve Charles’ electronic sound effects, which are overwhelming in places, especially at the beginning when we need to have access to the exposition that introduces us to who’s who and what’s happening.
Cory Sincennes’ lighting—lots of reds piercing the smoke—and Barbara Clayden’s wonderful black Mad Maxine-ish costumes help create the atmosphere and texture.
So finally, what are we to make of the gender switching? Julius becomes Julia, Antony Antonia, and the male pronouns all become female. You never quite get used to hearing those changes, especially in the better-known passages. But that should be part of the effect: we should be aware that we’re watching women in these traditional male roles, fine actresses finally getting to play the great parts from which women have always been shut out. Having the women pull long pins from their hair in place of daggers and swords is another signifier that they are not just assuming the role of men, as the female characters in Miss Shakespeare do--comically and poignantly--when they decide to perform publicly.
The rapid, violent martial arts choreography repeated a few times during the show underlines the message of gender equality. These women can kill and be killed just as well as any man.
J. Caesar and Miss Shakespeare play in rep at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre, May 21-29.