“Julius Caesar” Slays Expectations in PSIP’s All-Female Adaptation

By Eva Phillips

The balance of power is erratic and volatile. Can those who thirst for power and reign over others ever do so without corruption, or without the megrims of self-interest overtaking the objectiveness of their rule? And when individuals or factions move to dispose those in power, citing a desire to rectify corruption—can those individuals ever be pure in their motivations, or are they part of the sempiternal power struggle that is never requited.

These are concerns central to Shakespeare’s historical drama Julius Caesar as staged by the equally historical all-female cast and creative team of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks (PSIP). The story is a familiar one–Caesar returns a triumphant leader and pays no heed to the warnings of danger from a soothsayer and his own wife; while Cassius and Brutus forge their loyalty to one another over a plot to kill Caesar, who neglects the will and needs of the people. It is hauntingly appropriate that the show, staged in the bucolic Frick Park this past weekend, opens and closes with an ethereal rendition of Hans Zimmer’s “Now We Are Free” (famously from Gladiator), sung by the actors. The song works as a sort of rhetorical device: do Cassius and Brutus truly seek freedom for themselves and others, and do they achieve it through their actions and tragic demises? Does Marc Antony, Caesar’s evident successor and avenger, have the comprehension of freedom to truly pursue it? The song is also emblematic of a more meta theme for PSIP’s all-female production of the classically male-dominated play: they have reclaimed the narrative and the characters once made inaccessible to women. They have achieved a freedom of their own through this story.

The incredible crew and assembly of performers that enliven PSIP’s Caesar are fearlessly formidable in their adaptation. Directed ably by Elena Alexandratos, the women of Caesar come up against helicopters, vocal birds, unpredictable weather, and protective dogs (it turns out, a fleet of actors beating shields is perceived as an imminent threat by Jack Russel Terriers and other small friends), and conquer every challenge presented by performing outdoors while marvelously tackling the material at hand.

Alexandratos must be commended for a creative vision that is simultaneously compassionate and brutally bold. The leaner, condensed Caesar proffered by PSIP tends to the moments of bloviating that often weigh down Shakespeare’s historical pieces and distract from the visceral emotion that is at the core of such a tense story. Alexandratos deftly navigates through a tight production that favors pith and aching sentiment, and her capacious knowledge and passion for the material is routinely evident in her ability to stage each scene as evocatively as possible. Her Caesar movingly blends the concerns of the modern with the anguish and politics of the past–not simply the past of Caesar, Brutus and Marc Antony, but that of Shakespeare’s time recontextualized through the examination of posterity. In simpler terms, Alexandratos masters the mimetics of time and place in PSIP’s Caesar, and it makes the show even more effective to modern audiences. It is a true reflection of her talent and degree of directorial precision.

The performers of PSIP’s Caesar exquisitely demonstrate their passion for and intimate understanding of the material at hand. To an impressive crowd of 275 eager Shakespeareans who gathered on Sunday (which made for PSIP’s total audience records surpassing 15,000), the women bringing the roles of Caesar, Brutus, Calpurnia, Marc Antony et al to life exhibited extraordinary talent and raw sensitivity throughout.

As the voice of reason and order (who is no less conflicted and burdened by the strains of power) in the wake of Caesar’s assassination, Harper York’s Marc Antony is electric. York

Harper York as an impassioned Marc Antony

agilely flexes well-trained Shakespearean muscles, and provides a commanding center of moral gravity throughout the show, while never shirking a touch of snark necessary for the role. Likewise, Irene Alby as doomed Caesar (in all his corporeal and otherwise forms) is robust and invigorated, and Alby channels the appropriate admixture of ferocity and pained hubris that makes Caesar a brilliantly fraught character.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, in taking on the mammoth roles of Cassius and Brutus, Lisa Ann Goldsmith and Shammen McCune truly make this show their own. Playing Brutus with rapturous intensity that is made all the more eviscerating with the moments of excruciating vulnerability she interjects, McCune is nothing short of a revelation. Her dynamic presence demands the reverence and attention of not simply the audience, but stray pedestrians who happen upon the show in the park. Similarly, Goldsmith, is outstanding, and her Cassius is perhaps the most relatable and engaging rendering of any Shakespearean character I have encountered in a while. McCune and Goldsmith’s phenomenally effortless dynamic makes an already stellar show absolutely enthralling. It should be noted, too, that Jessica Pierson-Turner–who shines in the various roles she plays but is particularly moving as Brutus’ wife Porcia–is an instrumental player throughout the production. Her powerful emotiveness and humanizing subtlety elevates numerous scenes, especially those shared with McCune.

(L to R) Jessica Pierson-Turner; Shammen McCune

Executing a Shakespearean classic in a modern framework with an all-female cast, while braving the outdoors elements is no small feat. To do so earns my respect. But the creative team of PSIP’s Julius Caesar go an infinity beyond expectations, and create a production that should not be missed. Upon publishing this review, PSIP’s Artistic Director Jennifer Tober and PSIP as an entity will be honored by City Council, as they declare Sept. 10, 2019 “Jennifer Tober and Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks 15th Anniversary Day” to indicate the exceptional commitment to cultural and artistic enrichment for which PSIP is known. Julius Caesar is a scintillating, must-see new chapter in PSIP’s remarkable career–so be part of history and get to the parks!

Julius Caesar runs thru Sept. 29. For tickets and date-specific locations of Julius Caesar, visit PSIP’s site. 

Photography Credit: Yvonne Hudson; Ertel Photography

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