William Shakespeare’s plays continue to be re-staged for modern audiences. The strong versions often feature fresh perspectives, while still being true to the classic and timeless text.
That’s definitely the case in a new production of Julius Caesar, playing through the weekend, from The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program. Director Allegra Libonati coaxes universally strong performances from the graduate students, and brings an epic scope to an already-epic story.
Set in Rome, the dictator Caesar (Jersten Seraile) is beloved by many Roman citizens and commoners. What he doesn’t realize is that his close friend Marcus Brutus (Hallie Peterson), the senator Caius Cassius (Yadira Correa), and a group of other men and women are conspiring to assassinate him.
Following Caesar’s murder in the Senate, the conflict between Brutus, Cassius and their faction, and Caesar’s close friend and right-hand general Mark Antony (Jared Van Heel) erupts into open civil war.
The four main performers play their roles in a style that brings a degree of humanity to the famous historical characters. Peterson’s take on Brutus provides significant insight into the murderer’s thought process and mental framework, and she never turns the murderer into a one-dimensional villain or hero.
Despite Brutus’ noble intentions and consistent empathy, it’s still difficult to watch Caesar stabbed to death in front of our eyes, mainly because of Seraile’s likable and authoritative portrayal. Both Seraile and Libonati ensure, through his acting and her direction, that Caesars’ presence is felt long after his assassination.
While Cassius comes across as manipulative, Yadira manages to make her feel like a fully-rounded person, through her interactions with Peterson. Cassius’ and Brutus’ meaningful friendship is powerfully depicted by the performers.
Changing the most dramatically in his stage presence is Van Heel as Antony. Antony’s classic speech at Caesar’s funeral is passionately delivered by Van Heel, but the actor becomes increasingly methodical and effectively calm as the story progresses and war breaks out.
The director gets commanding performances from her cast, and depicts a historically accurate Rome that was tranquil one moment and vicious the next. Whether a peaceful soliloquy is spoken or a shocking act of violence, from fight choreographer George Ye, is committed, Libonati keeps us invested in the action at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.
Contributing to the grand vision of the piece are several of the crewmembers. Sound designer Kevin Anthenill’s original music is reminiscent of scores from big screen historical epics and Brandon H. Rosen’s lighting provides several big moments that give slow motion movement from the cast a dramatic quality. In addition, Anna Lineham Robinson’s set features plenty of red to symbolize the bloodshed that occurs onstage.
The most intentionally ambiguous visuals are Elisa Benzoni’s costumes. For the majority of the running time, her clothing doesn’t feel particularly inspired by any particular period of time. Once Antony rises in power, he and Caesar’s heir Octavius (Carlos Angel-Barajas) are well dressed in clothes that don’t feel far removed from 2018. Perhaps Libonati’s version takes place in the distant future or maybe even an alternate reality.
If some aspects about Julius Caesar are left open to interpretation, the themes of betrayal, revenge and power-grabbing are kept intact. Yet Libonati generally doesn’t demonize any of the major characters, and doesn’t tend to judge them, no matter how dark their actions and motivations are portrayed.
Libonati’s take on the dramatic narrative is further proof that high quality adaptations of the Bard’s work in Balboa Park aren’t always during the Summer Shakespeare Festival.