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Arts and Entertainment Sunday, Apr. 11, 2021 1 month ago

The Caesar Problem

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Shakespeare’s 'Julius Caesar' lives (and dies) in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s latest streaming video. It’s clever. But does the medium fit the message?
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

The FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s digital video of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is now streaming on the Asolo’s website. But it’s not your granddad’s toga party. Director/playwright Jonathan Epstein adapted the script and clipped the title to “Caesar.” (Spoiler alert: Caesar dies.)

Log in and turn on. What you’ll see is a movie, basically. They shot some scenes under clear blue skies at the Ringling Museum. In other scenes, they filmed the second-year student actors against a “green-screen” background. (Thanks to this technology, you can build digital Rome in a day.)

It’s a clever use of 21st century digital communications media. But does this new media serve Shakespeare’s message or distort it? That is the question. It’s a big one. And it can wait.

For now, let’s talk about the play.

The play opens with mob scene. Roman plebes press into a courtyard shouting out for “Caesar!” (Merri Rashoyan). When their living idol fails to appear, they shout louder—and clap and stomp like angry Metallica fans. Cinna (Bryan Lewis) and Messala (Emily Bohn) try to reason with them. The two senators don’t get very far. When Caesar finally shows, the crowd goes wild. It’s a sharp snapshot of mindless mob psychology—and the threat it represents.

Caesar’s fans are a boiling cauldron of raw feeling. That emotional nitroglycerine could blow Roman order to hell. Cinna and Messala see the danger of their blind loyalty—and share the bad news with a closed circle of the Roman elite. Julia Brutus (Charlotte Foster) and her cohorts discuss the “Caesar problem” in private. And consider ways to solve it. Caesar’s cult of personality is not the Roman way. But assassination sometimes is. The conspirators do the bloody deed—and it seems to solve the Caesar problem. But Rome goes to hell after all.

Epstein’s adaptation splits and merges characters, and plays Three-card Monte with gender identity. These changes in outward appearance don’t alter the play’s substance. He stays true to Shakespeare’s story.

In Epstein’s hands, that story is a psychological drama. The ending comes as no surprise. But external action (including political murder) isn’t the point. The real story unfolds in Roman hearts and minds. Epstein’s adaptation deftly conveys each character’s stream of consciousness. You see how Brutus and her cohorts weigh the decision to assassinate Caesar. How Romans of all classes make the wrong choices for all the right reasons. And how every good deed is punished.

Epstein’s razor-sharp script serves an inventive production. Pandemic necessity left no other choice than streaming video. Clever solution. But does it work for this play? Does the medium serve the message? It’s really a question of language.

With Shakespeare, the Word is always the thing.

And “Caesar” is no exception.

The Bard’s imaginative language is the play’s power. It takes a special alchemy to translate that power from page to stage. Here, even a great director is merely a midwife. The magic is born from an ensemble rehearsing and performing together. The actors bounce off each other, react and refine. Subtle feedback slowly shapes their individual performances—and fuses them into dramatic unity. If the stars are right, the transmutation happens. Shakespeare’s lofty language suddenly beats with the pulse of earthly thought and speech. And the actors sound like earthbound people talking.

This streaming production of socially distanced actors fights that linguistic alchemy by its very nature. It’s a mosaic of static scenes edited together. Aside from a few two-shots and group shots, each actor performed alone. And you can tell.

The effect is like watching a series of poetry readings. The actors are excellent. Most of their readings are, too. But they don’t feel like natural language. The separate scenes are smartly directed. But they never make a beautiful whole.

Don’t get me wrong, folks. I come to praise “Caesar,” not to bury it.

I enjoyed this streamlined, streaming production. It comes off as a Shakespearean poetry reading? So be it. For me, a heady cocktail of the Bard’s language is intoxicating enough. But there’s more than lofty language in the mix. Epstein’s adaptation captures the living flow of thought in Shakespeare’s characters.

And that’s more than enough.

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