BWW Reviews: A Young and Fresh Take on Shakespeare in Bridge Rep's JULIUS CAESAR
I cannot count the number of times I've had a conversation with a fellow theatre artist about making Shakespeare more accessible. Whether about a company's attempt at making the Bard appeal to younger generations or about my own colleagues' ambitions in making Shakespeare "cool", it just seems like there is constant dialogue about it. And don't get me wrong, I have seen both successful and unsuccessful productions attempting to make the classic stories young and relevant. Most recently, I attended Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston's production of Julius Caesar, which I am happy to report was one of the success stories.
The piece is being presented in the Calderwood Pavilion, in a room that is most often used as a rehearsal hall. When I heard where the performance was taking place, I immediately cringed, knowing how challenging it can be to maneuver these more unconventional spaces. But this is one of the best uses of an atypical venue I've seen. These designers worked with what they were given, rather than working around it. The playing space was filled with an artfully stacked mountain of wooden chairs, covering and creating platforms and hiding places. Designed by Esme Allen, the set appeared to erupt out of the wooden floors and very clearly served the play, rather than acting simply as a statement piece.
Costume Designer Stephanie Brownell worked hand in hand with the surroundings as well, using the color scheme of the room to influence her design. For the most part, costumes were simple and contemporary, staying to neutrals. But as the play progressed, accents of maroon and red began to pop up, perfectly matching the heavy curtains that swath the room. It made for a very cohesive look. Set and costumes were equally supported by Lighting Designer Stephen Petrilli, who was inventive in his design, particularly in his use of color and symbolism. And even the props design, by Jackie Kempe, was connected, as broken chair legs were used in the place of daggers, which made for really exciting fight scenes (even if they did sometimes look like magic wands). I was impressed with how harmoniously the designers worked with one another and with the room.
The entire piece feels young. It is cut to 100 minutes, which seemed exactly right for the story they were telling, and the show is filled with energetic and wildly talented young actors who were well-versed in the Shakespearean language. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of humor Director and Bridge Rep Artistic Director Olivia D'Ambrosio was able to find in this tragic tale. It is structured well, with musical sooth sayers contextualizing scenes and locations. And the adaptation had a nice arch to it, though the ending seemed a bit abrupt.
The strongest part of the production was most certainly the cast, which was stacked with talented and knowledgeable up and comers, all of whom delivered in this high-energy production. Leading the team was an incredibly charming Joe Short as Brutus, a nuanced and terrifyingly funny Brooks Reeves as Julius Caesar (yes, he somehow made the role hilarious in its cruelty), and a passionate and wildly complex John Tracey as Cassius.
One of my favorite choices by Director D'Ambrosio was the casting of a female Mark Antony, played by the effervescent Tiffany Nichole Greene. It was a well-supported choice, as the role lends itself to a beautiful balance of gentle emotion and fierce determination, which Greene executed effortlessly. And without changing the text (other than the pronouns), the team found ways to emphasize lines that somehow made it seem like Mark Antony was meant to be a female character from the start. I really enjoyed that choice.
That being said, there were some odd contractions made by this choice, specifically in the presentation of other characters. Portia, given a lovely portrayal by Kate Paulsen, speaks endlessly about how women "have no power" and how her gender defines the maximum amount of influence and strength she can have. I understand that this is part of the original text, but placed next to Mark Antony, who was not just played by a female actress, but turned into a female character, it conflicts. I completely acknowledge how challenging it would be to find a solution to this, as I really do think Greene's portrayal of Antony only served the play, but I think it's a discussion worth having.
It's not often I attend a Shakespearean play that leaves me wanting more, but Bridge Rep's Caesar did just that. It moved quickly, the action was both high stakes and artfully executed, and the cast was young and excited. I think when looking to make Shakespeare accessible, companies might do well to look to Bridge Rep for ideas.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Olivia D'Ambrosio; Scenic Design by Esme Allen; Lighting Design by Stephen Petrilli; Properties by Jackie Kempe; Costume Design by Stephanie Brownell; Movement by Shaura Baryshnikov; Production Stage Managed by Keagan McCarthy
JULIUS CAESAR runs at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through May 30th. For tickets and more information, visit www.bridgerep.org.