It snowed last night in Ashland, Oregon, where the temperature outside ultimately dropped to a low of 20 degrees. Meanwhile, on stage inside the Angus Bowmer Theater, the temperatures and blood pressures were increasingly high, as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival kicked off its 2017 season with a vigorous, high-energy, decidedly weird staging of William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar.’
Per tradition, OSF will be launching four full productions on opening weekend of its nine-month-long season, three of them in the opulent Bowmer, and one in the small state-of-the-art Thomas Theater. Over the next few months, new shows will appear regularly, leading up to June and the opening of the large outdoor Elizabethan Theater. By its close in October, OSF will have presented eleven shows in total, four of them penned by Shakespeare, one of them about Shakespeare, a world premiere inspired by a Shakespeare play, two inspired by ancient myths, one a Disney musical, and two additional world premieres.
And it all kicks off with ‘Julius Caesar,’ directed by Shana Cooper (of D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth company, the Bay Area’s California Shakespeare Theater). Cooper is widely acclaimed for her tightly stylized, occasionally off-putting, highly visual approach to classic and original plays. That style is certainly on display in her impressively visual ‘Caesar,’ in which the war-and-violence themes of Shakespeare’s script are played out on a set built of actively crumbling drywall, the action scenes propelled by wildly aggressive, aerobically impressive fight choreography, all of it underscored by the rhythmic, chant-like shouts and vocalizations of the fully committed cast.
As Caesar, longtime OSF member Armando Duran is wonderful. His subtle physicality and quickly shifting emotions brilliantly suggest the kind of politician some would distrust while others would worship. Roman Senator Brutus, often played as the dark, brooding opposite of the virtuous Mark Antony, here becomes the central figure of the play. Played by Danforth Comins as a man of high intellect who is caught between his love of Caesar and his suspicions of powerful people, Brutus is easily manipulated by the angry Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who despises Caesar for what he sees as the new leader’s deeply hidden weaknesses and frailty. Antony (Jordan Barbour), usually the moral axis of the play, is portrayed as an opportunistic hothead, further placing the central ethical weight of the story on Brutus’ shoulders.
When the inevitable slaying of Caesar takes place in the Capitol – simply suggested by rows of easily upended chairs – it is effectively bloody and horrific, and credit must be given to Duran for the emotional power this much-played scene manages to evoke, even pulling fresh power from the line “Et tu, Brute?”
There is an appealingly stripped down, industrial-decay vibe to every detail of the show, from the deceptive simplicity of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s construction-site set, to the plastic buckets used as stools and lanterns, to the flashlights used to illuminate actors faces during key meetings of the conspirators, to the sheets of plastic used to wrap about corpses, to the castoff hoodies and Army-surplus grunge of Raquel Barreto’s highly effective costumes.
There is a strong “indie theater” feel to the production, which sometimes feels lifted from some underground warehouse theater, where brilliant artists do impressive work for next-to-no money. The observation is meant as high praise.
In the program’s Directors Note, Cooper praises “the deep physical and emotional sacrifices that this fierce ensemble of actors contribute,” and one gets a sense of it from the opening moments, as bewigged celebrants pound on the theater doors, invading the auditorium with whoops and hollers, stomping and dancing across the stage. In the play’s second act – long accepted by scholars as a bit of a confusing mess compared to the play’s lean, tight first act – the consequences of Caesar’s murder play out in an escalating series of interchangeable skirmishes and bloody deaths.
It’s here that Cooper’s vision fully reveals itself. The battles, choreographed by Erika Chong Such, are danced as much as they are fought, though these are no “West Side Story” rumbles. There is a true sense of terror and rage in these scenes, suggesting that the violence unleashed by the conspirators did not take much to set free. The easily manipulated populace – portrayed by the cast in eerie masks – commit compulsive acts of revenge every bit as savage as the murder of Caesar. Even after the final line has been spoken, the warriors vigorous, frightening fight-dance continues, and continues – till we in the audience ask ourselves, “When is this ever going to stop?”
And that, of course, is the whole point of “Julius Caesar,” and Cooper’s offbeat but stirring approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy, a powerful examination of politics, manipulation, bloodshed and war, that ultimately demands to know, “When is this ever going to stop?”