For a history geek like me, there are few greater joys than a Julius Caesar production. The play is a picture postcard from that stunning moment when reasonable men thought drastic acts could save the Roman Republic. This year’s Old Globe/University of San Diego MFA production delivers a taut and passionate rendition.
The Republic was on shaky ground long before Caesar showed up, but he was willing to take his quest for power farther than anyone else. After vanquishing several numerically superior armies, he settled in to rule Rome.
But Rome didn’t want to be ruled – or at least the Senatorial class was against it. They’d had kings before and weren’t eager to go back. One of the worst slurs anyone could utter against a man was that he wanted to be king. Caesar was a master politician, and protested he was not interested, but everybody knew. Which is why Brutus, Cassius, Casca and others conspired to kill him.
The title is kind of a misnomer. The play is less about Caesar, played stoically by second-year MFA Jersten Seraile, than the conspirators surrounding him, particularly Brutus. Caesar had a soft spot for young Brutus, the son a mistress, and pardoned him after he took the losing side in the just-concluded civil war.
In the play, Brutus is conflicted – he has deep feelings for both Caesar and the Republic. He is played by first-year MFA Hallie Peterson, who admirably captures his ambivalence before he joins the conspiracy and his resolve afterwards.
Opposite Brutus is Mark Antony. Second-year Jared Van Heel nails the funeral speech, as well as the budding competition between Antony and Octavius. Additional kudos to Ramon Burris as Casca and Yadira Correa as Cassius. Though he has few lines, Aubrey Deeker Hernandez is memorable as a cold and slimy Decius Brutus (different Brutus, I know, it’s annoying that so many Roman leaders shared names).
The staging really captures the moment, particularly the fickle mob and Caesar’s murder in the Roman Senate – so powerful some audience members gasped. The costumes perfectly delineated class distinctions and putting the second triumvirate in matching silver suits was a nice touch.
There are no good guys here. Caesar was a power-hungry megalomaniac who gets charitable treatment for showing mercy in a merciless time. The conspirators were less interested in saving the Republic than they were in maintaining the Senate’s power and thus their own. Antony was a self-indulgent playboy who had already screwed up at ruling Rome. In other words, they were humans. The strength of this production is how well it captures that humanity.