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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A.R.T. Takes a Stab at Julius Caesar

Now through March 16, patrons of the American Repertory Theatre will have the chance to experience a modern, highly stylized, take on William Shakespeare’s classic tale of political backstabbing, “Julius Caesar.” The production, directed by Arthur Nauzyciel, deviates considerably from Shakespeare’s tragedy, adding songs that didn’t exist in the original script, and changing the setting drastically.

Nauzyciel transports the play from ancient Rome to a world more familiar to today’s audience. This transition is a clumsy one that never quite fits. Although none of the dialog is changed (with the exception of Brutus’ servant Lucius, who delivers his lines in sign language), the set and costume design imitate 1960s America. A jazz trio is also added to create a more contemporary feeling.

Indeed the 60s seem to be an ingenious alternative to ancient Rome. Like Rome, which was facing a transition from a republic to an imperial dictatorship, the 1960s were a turbulent time. The 60s had it all: civil unrest, political sniping, war and even the assassination of a seemingly invincible leader. However Nauzyciel’s vision is too obscure, or too avant-garde to capture the tension of Shakespeare’s masterpiece in this new setting.

The actors don’t do much to enhance this new setting either. The acting and blocking consistently miss their marks. Jim True-Frost’s Brutus does not convey the inner torment that one would expect of a man who is struggling to decide whether or not to join the conspirators who want to assassinate his closest friend. And James Waterston’s portrayal of Mark Antony is similarly disappointing. Waterston comes across as startlingly docile; he is hardly a man who one would expect to move a nation to revolution with his stirring funeral speech.

Perhaps it is unfair to be too harsh on any actor when the task is Mark Antony’s iconic plea, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” but what should have been an emotionally charged moment felt empty and unsatisfying. Nauzyciel must take some blame for the, at times almost unwatchable, acting. It is his direction that places the actors in odd and unnatural positions that often result in one actor staring out into the audience while speaking to another who is, mysteriously, looking in yet another direction. Eye contact between the characters is a rare occurrence in this iteration of “Julius Caesar.”

In addition to the acting there are a number of awkward moments in the play, such as Lucius’ omnipresence downstage, often laying or sleeping, seemingly removed from the action going on around him. And despite the 60s American furniture, the bright tracksuits and the prevalent sound of a camera snapping pictures, the actors’ lines are not changed to reflect a contemporary, or American setting. Brutus and Cassius still debate the values of Roman society with and without Caesar. This causes confusion, as the audience must try to decode Nauzyciel’s hidden meanings.

The play seems to concern itself more with style than Shakespeare’s vision, a decision that, in this case, like most cases, proves fatal. With the set, however, is difficult to find any flaws. It is a treat to look at, but at over three hours long, “Julius Caesar” needs to offer more than pretty visuals to keep audience members interested. Unfortunately the A.R.T.’s production fails to deliver.