William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” by some estimates the most popular play ever written, has everything. Leaders are murdered and commit suicide on stage. Mighty armies clash. History is made, then unmade and remade. And it all occurs at one of the pivotal points in the history of the world, when the planet’s first republic turns to chaos and then to autocracy.
Add in some of the greatest language ever penned, with dozens of phrases that still resonate in our everyday conversations, and a plot that plumbs the depths of profound moral and political issues, and you have a play that would have kept enthralled even the blue color mobs who stood in the pit at the foot of the Elizabethan stage and hurled jeers, cheers and rotten vegetables at the actors strutting and fretting their hour.
Albuquerque’s Duke City Repertory Theatre is currently taking on this leviathan of a play. Despite all it has had to recommend it through more than four centuries, it is not an easy play to perform. The production takes place in the tiny Cell Theater. Yet “Julius Caesar” has a huge cast, with some two dozen speaking roles plus various crowds of supporting actors. Its five acts include dozens of scenes in numerous locations over many weeks. Moreover, all that on-stage violence must somehow be depicted in a way that convinces the audience.
John Hardy, a director, actor and playwright, adapted the play for Duke City Rep. As the director, he faced not only the challenges already described but others that immensely complicated his task. Rather than selecting his cast to fit the roles, he said he had to adapt the play to the cast he was given: only six actors, three of them women (Shakespeare created only two female characters, both minor).
To resolve all these issues, Hardy made a number of compromises. Most controversially, he made a number of changes in Shakespeare’s text. He deleted a third of the original play, shortening it to a single 75-minute act. He eliminated some significant speeches, as when the female characters complain of their powerlessness (one actress said later she found it remarkably “empowering” to have women being three of the five assassins who stab Caesar). He altered dialogue. He has women playing men and men playing women. He changed hundreds of gender pronouns and nouns. He assigned four or five roles to each of the six actors.
It is often hard for an audience to detect the role of a director in shaping a play, but in this case the changes are so stunningly obvious that it is as if the director himself is the largest presence on stage.
Take just one change. One of the most famous sentences, in the play as in the English language, is
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune.”
But in Hardy’s adaptation, the first line reads, “There is a tide in the affairs of lives….” The line has been altered so that an actress does not have to utter the forbidden word “men,” yet it makes no sense. Men (and women) have affairs, lives do not.
Another change was perhaps forced by the small size of the cast. Caesar’s funeral orations, delivered by Brutus and Marc Anthony (the latter possibly the most famous speech in the English language) lose their punch as they are enacted as casual remarks to a handful of supporters rather than dramatic declamations to crowds of citizens.
In a discussion after the performance, Hardy conceded he had to make “hundreds of changes” to make the gender changes work. In one scene, for example, a female Brutus discourses with a male version of his/her husband/wife Portia.
The gender bending enormously complicates the audience’s task of following the action because in one scene an actor may be playing a man and in another scene a woman. Even when genders don’t shift, the multiple roles of each actor are confusing, and the fact that the characters don’t change costumes (except for headbands and sashes) doesn’t help matters.
Hardy said he’d never seen “Caesar” done this way. The closest Albuquerque show I’ve seen was “The Penelopiad,” written by Margaret Atwood, loosely based on parts of Homer’s “Odyssey” and performed a year ago by Mother Road. With an all-female cast, its gender bending actually worked out pretty well, casting new light on the Greek characters.
With all these problems stacked against them, the six-person cast of Duke City regulars—Amelia Ampuero, Ezra Colón, Katie Becker Colón, Frank Taylor, Josh Heard and Lauren Myers—does a credible job, although they seem to devote more attention to getting their lines right than to plumbing the psychological depths of their complex characters with their fascinating moral dilemmas. (This is a recurring problem in American performances of Shakespeare, for we in this country simply lack the decades of familiarity with Elizabethan poetry that most educated Britons bring to the Bard.)
The Duke City Rep show nearly coincides with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which will be celebrated next month, and overlaps the infamous Ides of March, March 15, when Caesar was killed. The company has previously performed the play before school audiences in Albuquerque and southern New Mexico.
For tickets and information go to dukecityrep.com. or call 797-7081. “Julius Caesar” continues through March 20, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Cell Theater, 700 1st St. NW in downtown Albuquerque.
Three cautions about the show. The company says the performance is appropriate for audiences over 13 years old. Second, although Shakespeare described the play as “a history,” the Bard altered or fabricated many of the facts of Caesar’s life and death; this is a drama, not a biography. Third, I advise reading the play before seeing it to capture the spirit of the original.
While this performance has its flaws, the substance of the play is so profound and its bedrock concerns are so vital to our own democracy in this traumatized election year that it is well worth seeing.