By coincidence, I’ve been watching on DVD the HBO series Rome, about the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the politics that swirled around his reign over the Empire and led to his assassination. If you haven’t seen this particular historical recreation, I’ll mention that two women play very significant roles: Caesar’s scheming niece Atia, the manipulative mother of Octavius (later Augustus Caesar), and Servilia, the ultimately cold-hearted, vengeful mother of Brutus, the principled senator who was among Caesar’s assassins.
As a result, it was intriguing to attend Julius Caesar at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) in which the roles traditionally played by male actors have been assigned to women. Director Jeremy Dubin writes in a director’s note, “Intrinsically and irrevocably tied to the creation of Rome is this image of feminine strength, an image of tenderness engirded by ferocity, an image of the most dangerous creature known to the world — a mother protecting her young.”
Atia and Servilia are not characters in Shakespeare’s drama. In fact, women are barely present in the play — Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and Brutus’s wife Portia make brief appearances, but their loving concerns are quickly dismissed. The motives of Caesar (played for CSC by Liz Vosmeier), his cynical critic Cassius (Kelly Mengelkoch) and high-minded Brutus (Sherman Fracher) are unchanged — only the pronouns and male references (“sister” for “brother”) have been adjusted due to the gender reversals.
In Rome, the women are vicious she-wolves, much like the animal who suckled and protected the city’s founders Romulus and Remus (we are reminded of this historic tale during the opening moments of CSC’s Julius Caesar). But they remain profoundly feminine. For CSC, despite the presence of numerous accomplished actresses, they almost never rise above women pretending to be men with the self-serving, sometimes violent ambitions. Only petite Sara Clark as Mark Antony uses her alto voice and intense stage presence to make you forget her gender: Following Caesar’s assassination, s/he howls almost voicelessly, vowing to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” and it’s chilling. (The moment is enhanced by Chris Guthrie’s effective sound design, which includes a fierce growl as the stage goes dark.)
But the effect is not because we are witnessing a “she-wolf” protecting her young: Antony is a loyal retainer, vowing vengeance. Clark does not portray Antony as a woman, but rather as a fierce, loyal and scheming warrior, one who cleverly manipulates the populace (actors arrayed up and down the theater’s aisles) to furious violence following Caesar’s death. When Antony later joins forces with Octavius (Jolin Polasek) to wage war against the assassins, it’s a partnership with an even more cold-blooded killing machine, a soldier who murders others with little compunction.
Such intense scenes demonstrate why Shakespeare’s play is one of his most powerful, and the performers who Dubin has cast are skilled with Shakespeare’s powerful and poetic language. But the casting of women proves more a distraction than a revelation. Caesar’s assassination, with Vosmeier stumbling about the stage, felt awkward and almost laughable rather than tragic; only when Clark’s Antony expressed horror at the deed did it resonate.
Such odd emotional transitions happen too often in this production: A scene might swing from flat to gripping, then quickly back. It diminished the impact of a tale about people with varied motives taking history into their own hands, only to discover it was more than they could handle.
Perhaps that’s akin to the lesson of this interpretation of Julius Caesar. It’s admirable to undertake a dramatic change for something that might offer a new perspective. But beware the consequences.
JULIUS CAESAR, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through April 23.