Director’s Chicago theater debut tries for meaning already manifest

British director Jonathan Munby’s modern take on Julius Caesar seeks to “release” the play for modern audiences. From what, exactly, remains to be seen.

By John Gamino

Don’t be afraid to show up hungry to Julius Caesar. British director Jonathan Munby, making his Chicago debut at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, has opted for a distinctly modern rendition of Shakespeare’s classic. If you have a hankering for a hot dog or a beer, you can buy one from the street vendors onstage, who invite you to join them in celebrating Caesar’s victorious escapades even before the start of Act I.

Munby calls Julius Caesar “a cautionary tale for our time.” And it is. Shakespeare’s tale exposes us to the humanity in brutality, the challenges of reconciling deep-seated convictions and deeply unsettling doubts, and the vulnerability of man in the face of a man-made crisis. The problem is that in bringing the play to the modern age, Munby has overplayed his hand. He seems to hold us in little more regard than Shakespeare’s fickle populace, whose allegiances sway with the succession of every sweet-sounding speech. “What does it mean for [the audience], coming to see this play, in 2013, in this theater?” Munby asks. “How can I release the play for them?”

The short answer is that the play means many of the same things for us today as it did for Shakespeare’s audiences and Caesar’s own contemporaries. As Cassius remarks of Caesar’s death in the play; “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” The truth is that modernized versions of Shakespeare can lend topical perspectives to his timeless ideas, but they also run the risk of crowding them out. We don’t need the play “released” for us to appreciate its life.

But when the street peddlers run off, we’re left wondering. Caesar (David Darlow) has apparently triumphed, and he enters the stage with much pomp and circumstance. A mammoth of a banner hangs from the ceiling advertising, the play’s Web site; gold eagles line the red curtains, more reminiscent of yesteryear Germany than the contemporary America Munby cites as his inspiration. It’s not clear how this vaguely modern political sphere is supposed to bring Shakespeare’s tale closer to home. We don’t even know where we are.

The play’s best moments come when its characters are allowed to be themselves. Larry Yando brings unsettling humor to the conspirator Casca: His expressions twist manipulatively, and his voice twangs with contempt for the lowly commoners. Jason Kolotouros, as Cassius, infuses his eloquent plots against Caesar with conviction and verve. When he kneels, he kneels rapturously to us. Who would not be seduced?

Thankfully, these scenes soon move us from the befuddling start to the real meat of the play; the political allusions retreat, and the human moments finally come forth. We’re left with actors, a stage, and Shakespeare’s language—and little else to get in the way. It works, for these are not just characters with separate private and public faces. They mix themselves up in their own complexity. Few know what they want or what they’re dealing with, and no one knows what will transpire.

As the plot unfolds, this uncertainty catches fatal hold in even the legendary Caesar. Darlow brings a brusque sense of general confidence to the role, amplifying those instances in which his confidence does give way. While he ruminates over showing up at the Senate on that fateful day, his face exposes real apprehension, even as it retains a half-grin. He is a man who is truly half-convinced—and tragically half-converted. The conspiring senators march in all at once, clapping emphatically, before he can even finish announcing to Calpurnia his new intentions. It’s a nice, subtle directorial touch. When Caesar proceeds to denounce flatterers before the Senate, it comes with an even more poignant foundation.

The senators, meanwhile, pounce on Caesar with ebullient, yet joltingly inhuman cries of “Freedom!” and callously livid eyes. It’s a scene that should be disturbing, and disturb it does. After the murder, the conspiring senators stand warily around Caesar’s body: As they tremble, we can already see that they have no control over the situation they have wrought. If the modern twist succeeds anywhere in the play, it’s with the frightening image conjured by their rolled-up white oxfords, splattered with blood.

Unfortunately, the one character who never really gets off the ground is Brutus (John Light). This is a shame, because he represents the play’s most profound and elaborate figure. As Marc Antony (Dion Johnstone) puts it, “the elements” were “so mix’d in him that Nature might…say to all the world ‘This was a man!’” But we would hardly think him more than a mere conspirator if it weren’t for Shakespeare’s lines. When he talks of his “sad brow,” we don’t see it. In a play marked by blood, it’s telling that the knife Brutus eventually uses to stick himself falls clean and unspoiled to the ground. His inner woes are never brought to light.

The battles at the end come with remarkable sensual effects: We can smell the smoky, metallic demolition, and we see the hot dog cart now burnt to a black crisp, its umbrella ripped to shreds. Yet we don’t need guns to make the destruction and despair real. In the end, the little things prove most compelling: the personal, the physical, the human. Amidst the war-riddled scene, it’s still the frightful eyes of Cassius and Titinius that draw us in, revealing the story that truly hits home here.