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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Bold, modern "Julius Caesar" defies expectations


If, like most public school-educated Americans, you read "Julius Caesar" as a tenth-grader, you may walk into Milwaukee Shakespeare's production of the play with certain expectations. "Togas," you're probably thinking. "Guys in togas prancing across the stage, spouting iambic pentameter."

Think again.

The action in this muscular production, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, takes place in front of a steel and glass backdrop reminiscent of an office building from the "greed is good" era. The actors are clad in modern dress, beautifully tailored dark suits with pastel accents. They could be politicians or corporate CEOs from any time in the last 30 years. The telltale costuming details, however, are the flag-shaped lapel pins each man wears. These little pins, ubiquitous since 9/11, firmly place the action in the present.

The brilliant work of set designer Kris Stone and costume designer Karin Kopischke, though stark and minimal, offers a set of clues to help a modern audience decipher the class structure. Would we know these men are aristocrats simply by the cut of their togas? Probably not. But put them in dark suits in a modern boardroom, and we understand exactly what's happening.

As the play begins, Caesar returns triumphantly from his defeat of Pompey, a former ally turned enemy, at Pharsalus. Caesar has instigated a civil war, defeated virtually all his enemies, and assumed unprecedented powers. He returns to Rome a military hero. But the body of aristocrats, now wielding less power than they once enjoyed, fear that Caesar has grown too ambitious and will eventually accept a crown. Led by Cassius, they hatch a plot to murder Caesar on the floor of the Senate. Once the deed is done, the conspirators, especially Brutus, justify their actions by claiming to have killed Caesar for the good of the state. But the people, roused into mutiny by Caesar loyalist Marc Antony, rise up in opposition. The conspirators flee, some to military deaths, some to self-inflicted martyrdom, and one to guilt-ridden instability.

The uniformly strong cast brings depth and humanity to each character. They are all comfortable with the language, from veteran actor James Tasse as Caesar, to Homestead ninth-grader Nick Ballesteros as Lucius the servant. Aled Davies is an outstanding Brutus, a patriotic rationalist led to murder by Conan McCarty's fierce Cassius. The relationship between these two men provides a riveting emotional center to the action. Joe Foust mines Caska, another conspirator, for some much-needed comic relief -- then virtually disappears into his second role as Messala, officer in the conspirators' army. Michael Milligan is captivating in his performance as Marc Antony. His address at Caesar's funeral, the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, reminds us that no matter how shaky the facts, a skillful partisan pundit can sway public opinion with just a few well-chosen words. It's a notion with clear connections to contemporary politics. In fact, in her director's notes Holdridge acknowledges that people seem to think there is timeliness to "Julius Caesar."

"They tell me that the current tensions in American politics have direct parallels to the workings of Shakespeare's Rome," she writes. "Updating" "Julius Caesar" is not a new idea. The play enjoyed a renaissance in the early decades of the 20th century, coinciding with the rise of European fascism. Caesar himself has been variously played as Mussolini, Hitler and De Gaulle.

So what are we to make of this relentlessly modern production? In his first appearance, Caesar struts across the stage waving to a crowd of adoring well-wishers. He could be a modern American president descending from Air Force One and crossing the tarmac, with Secret Servicemen pushing the rabble to the edges of the stage. The danger of applying our modern notions of Democrat and Republican, progressive and regressive, to the play is that Brutus and the conspirators, wealthy aristocrats and defenders of the status quo, would fall firmly on the same side of the ideological divide as Caesar.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare was not writing about a specific political situation. "Julius Caesar" is a meditation on power and what the possession -- or envy -- of it does even to the most rational of men. As always, Shakespeare tapped into something universal in this work. Updating Shakespeare allows us to look at our own experiences through the lens of a timeless observation about human nature, and forces us back to the text for further illumination. Milwaukee Shakespeare's production is an accomplishment at every level, both timeless and timely in its execution.

"Julius Caesar" runs through March 13. Pre-performance talks are available before every performance, 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, performance schedules and tickets, call the UWM Peck School box office at (414) 229-4308, Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., or visit milwaukeeshakespeare.com.

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