“The people are more apt to feel than to reason,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Americans, in his 1835 Democracy in America. I’ve thought of that observation a lot during the latest narratives and character developments of the presidential campaign, and I thought of it again during a pivotal scene in Portland Stage Company’s superb Julius Caesar, which director Lucy Conroy Smith sets in modern America:
Marc Antony (Michael Sharon) begins his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech by eulogizing his friend Caesar (Kevin Kelly), freshly murdered by Brutus (Dan Domingues) and the Senate, to a populace inclined to believe that their ruler was a tyrant. But by the time he’s done, Antony’s rhetoric has whipped the people into an emotional lather of love for the dead man, and they rise primed for revolt in Caesar’s name. The aroused citizens who rush the podium look like regular old American folks in jeans, T-shirts, a leather biker vest — they’re anybody we might see next to us at a town meeting, rally, or Memorial Day parade. The ease with which their ordinary fears and desires are manipulated, during a time of political uncertainty, looks chillingly familiar in PSC’s tour de force production.
Shakespeare wrote this historical tragedy during some political instability of his own era: Queen Elizabeth, though aged and ailing, was refusing to name her successor, and many feared civil unrest upon her death. In staging Rome’s upheaval as a contemporary American political drama, Conroy acutely sends home its continued political relevance. The senators wear impeccable suits (Kris Hall’s sharp costume design) and send messages by BlackBerries and cell phones; the citizens attend the festival of Lupercalia and a rally for Caesar dressed for Mardi Gras, drinking from plastic cups, being hassled by uniformed cops. Projected onto a large screen over the stage are video images and montages — of news clips, police tape, cars set ablaze in riots, bystanders capturing chaos on digital cameras and phones — to simulate the hyper-stimulation of our 24-hour-plus news and media loops. Anita Stewart’s sets and Bryon Winn’s lights take us from the dappled marble luxury of the Senate to the night-goggle green of the battlefield. Between Adam Bower’s projections and Matt O’Hare’s sound design, conflict is heightened by the nerve-wracking tropes of tension — clips of urgent newscasters, digital roars of crowds, strings à la Psycho — that are our era’s recognizable accompaniments to trauma.
As principals Brutus, Antony, and Cassius (who puts Brutus up to the betrayal), Domingues, Sharon, and Rebecca Watson are magnificently ambiguous. They fuse the glamour, intrigue, and arrogance of celebrity politics with more human motivating qualities of pride, loyalty, and sorrow. None is beyond reproach, and none is beyond sympathy. A smattering of fine local actors join the show’s visiting Equity performers, including the fantastic JP Guimont, playing Senator Caskus as a drawling Southerner, Tavia Gilbert as a susceptible Senator Cinna, and Sally Wood as an aggressive Portia, wife of Brutus. The cast is rounded out by an excellent small ensemble of players, each of whom (along with many of the core cast) portrays numerous minor roles in the tragedy. The effect is of an epic at once vast and intimate, of a people both legion and very, very familiar.
Indeed, it’s a credit to the nuance and subtlety of this cast, and to Conroy’s masterful direction, that PSC’s Caesar feels like a portrait less of Brutus (often considered the play’s protagonist) than of an entire republic — from its shoemakers to its generals — in the process of self-annihilation. This production moves us to become as invested in the fate of that republic as we would in a character — a complex character, noble, flawed, infuriating, heartrending; a character whose insecurities and emotional weaknesses often hit disturbingly close to home.
|Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare | Directed by Lucy Smith Conroy | Produced by Portland Stage Company | though October 19 | 207.774.0465|
The character of our own real-life republic certainly has plenty of uncertainties to deal with at the moment, even without a financial meltdown in the works. In fact, another of Tocqueville’s timeless observations about us was that an American election year constitutes “a crisis in the affairs of the nation,” that it riles up “all the artificial passions which the imagination can create.” PSC’s sophisticated and devastating interpretation of Julius Caesar reminds us of just how crucial it is that we keep our heads.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.