WIL Festival 2.2: “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar”

2017 has been the summer of “Caesar.” It is one of the two new plays that OPS Fest has introduced into their repertoire. It is also playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival down in Ashland. The director of that production, in a talk-back in February, stated that she doesn’t know why there are acts four and five (read: anything after the murder of Caesar). That is a common misconception if you think the play is an autobiographical account rather than considering what is tragic about the quality of a major political figure’s death. The title is, after all, “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” and not “The History of Julius Caesar.” Hence the on-going problems with the Public’s production of this play in New York, as company member Hailey Bachrach discusses here. What does OPS Fest offer to the spectrum of “Caesars” out there this summer?

From left: Beth Yocam (Brutus), Isabella Buckner (Cassius), Sullivan Mackintosh (Cymber), Brian Allard (Caesar), Lauren Saville (Decius Brutus), Shani Harris-Bagwell (Lepidus), David Bellis-Squires (Dardanius), and Michael Streeter (Soothsayer).

 The funny thing about “Julius Caesar” is, I have never actually seen it played live with a male Caesar, Brutus, or Cassius. The Back Room Shakespeare Project, another kind of original practice group, did it in 2014 (which I also wrote about) with a similar re-gendering as the OPSF performance today. And really, I’m not sure I would want to see it any other way. Shakespeare was performed by all men/boys because of Puritan anxieties, so the plays were inherently designed with the plasticity of gender in mind. In early modern England, hetero- and homo-sexuality were not operative categories. In fact, we were all one gender: women were literally considered to be under-baked men. We didn’t stay in the oven long enough, so we were moist, soft, and hadn’t developed the extra member. It was a given that gender was a spectrum, so playing across it is absolutely in the spirit of original practices as well as aligns with gender identity vocabularies and norms of the period. Sex Before Sex (2013) is a fabulous collection of essays on just this.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about gender parity and Shakespeare performance in the PNW. It is one thing to aim for parity in your players, and it is another to put a range of gender and sexual identities on stage for others to see. Before every OPSF show, part of the pre-performance warm-ups includes going around and saying who is playing what part and as what gender. Remember, they haven’t rehearsed together (at least in the way we define “rehearsal” today), so as a group this is their only moment for information-gathering. I have not yet seen an OPSF show myself where less than two characters have been played across gender, not merely played by an actor not of the assigned gender as the part. It is an explicit choice that has interesting ramifications that I will discuss later in this post. But first, some of the unique features of this WIL Fest performance of “Julius Caesar.”

From left: Beth Yocam (Brutus), Lissie Lewis (Lucius), and Joel Patrick Durham (Prompter).


War, conspiracy, omens, assassinations, and a ghost! The too ambitious Caesar is killed by a group of high-ranking political conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. Fleeing Rome, they are defeated in battle by Antony and Octavius, Caesar’s heir; but it’s only after the battle that the bodies start piling up. [From the playbill.]

Clever Cues

When they aren’t correcting for a plane overhead or a late entrance, there seems to be two ways in which the players respond to the Prompter’s interruption: a witty one-liner

PROMPTER (Joel Patrick Durham): Lucius, why are you always so tired?
LUCIUS (Lissie Lewis): Well, I have a new boyfriend…

or, a set-up to what then becomes fodder for a running-gag—if the others can find ways to capitalize on it. For example,

PROMPTER: Caesar, where did you get that bathrobe?
CAESAR (Brian Allard): My tailor.
PROMPTER: What did you tell him?
CAESAR: Make me a robe fit for Caesar! Why? What do you tell your tailor?
PROMPTER: The same thing…

Later this was maximized when Artemidorus (Emma Whiteside), etymologically parsing as “gift of Artemis,” was played as a bimbo fangirl:

PROMPTER: Artemidorus, what do you see in Caesar?
ARTEMIDOROUS: He’s got great eyes, and a good sense of fashion!
PROMPTER: Have you seen his bathrobe? Oh, you’re in for a treat!

Another etymological side-bar, on “Artemis”: likely linguistically kindred to bears, from the very ancient bear cult from when she was initially conscripted, her Latin meaning is either artamos, meaning “butcher,” or artemḗs, meaning “unharmed.” Either way you read it, you get an interesting possible interpretation of why the heck Artemidorus is in the play to begin with. That, and Whiteside’s regendering was linguistically on the money.

Kaia Maarja Hillier (Mark Antony) chose to memorize her major speeches here and as Juliet yesterday.

Interesting Interruptions

There were no especial interruptions during this performance, as it seems the evenings are less active in the parks. The volume of dogs (and cats, including the Swinford’s leash-positive Augustus) is quite apparent, and there have been a lot of returner pups, including a full-sized grey poodle with a low rumble for a bark. It is certainly more dogs than I am accustomed to seeing at Shakespeare in the Park events in Chicago and New York. They were capitalized upon, however: when a servant re-enters in act two and Caesar asks “What say the augurers?” he instead asked the question of a group of dogs rather than the servant.

The animal connection to augurs is a good one. In Classical Rome (oh hey, that is the only context in which you should capitalize the word Classical, btw), augurs were considered a priestly class. Ships were launched, declarations of war were announced, solders were recalled, and battle plans were changed based on their ability to “take the auspices.” “Auspices” comes from the Latin auspex: one who observes the flight of birds for the purpose of taking omens. The roots are deliciously theatrical: awi means bird and spek means to look at or observe. Based on this, all of us as audience members, when spectating birds in the park above the performance, were participating in augury.

When augurs took auspices, they were finding meaning in the flight patterns, congregations, and the viscera of birds. “Viscera” refers to anything in your guts. For ancient Romans, your stomach told you a lot more about you as a hero than your head or heart might. Reading the guts of birds was more likely the thing that launched a thousand ships than Helen’s face. The word “augury” is a literal combination of the two Latin roots avis (bird) and gero (to chirp), and is one of those words in the very bones of the Hellenic Age. When your cat chirps at birds or chips at you? S/he’s literally trying to interpret what you want. The infamous twins, Romulus and Remus, counted numbers of birds in the sky. When they disagreed about how many they saw, Romulus killed Remus; you might say that the very founding of Rome is an augury.

So what about Augustus, Augie, the Cat, you ask? Some historical linguists contend that “augury” comes from the genitive augeris, meaning “to increase.” If so, then yes, the name Augustus and augury would share a bond. (The argument goes that because of the prestige of the position and the high price one would command, augurs became associated with money.) The name “Augustus” uniquely developed its own declension, and so literally came to mean its own thing: “most successful, most noble, most venerable.” “Octavius”? Despite the tantalizing avis, it is a false root in this case. The Octavius of this play happened to merely be the eighth child born of his family. Although I suspect the aural bird associations were not lost on Shakespeare. [Thanks to Matt Minicucci for the linguistic side-bar consult!]

The wives protest. From left: Amy Driesler (portia), Beth Yocam (Brutus), Shani Harris-Bagwell (Calphurnia), and Brian Allard (Caesar).

Distilling Dramaturgy

But back to my initial baking observations. What do you get from identifying Cassius (Isabella Buckner) and Brutus (Beth Yocam) as women? For one, the same-sex relationship between Brutus and Portia (Amy Driesler) gets clear of some of the embedded hierarchies of gender so you can see a bit of their relationship more clearly. Consider Portia’s request:

Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father’d and so husbanded?
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em

Being of the same sex, the first clause has the potential to be understood as “think you I am not as strong as you?” when Brutus is played as female-identifying. “My sex” becomes a rhetorical device to remind Brutus of their equality rather than an attempt at pity and/or reverse psychology. Yocam and Driesler interpret the characters as a couple trying to find a middle path together. Aren’t we all? Regardless of their ultimate morality, it is important to have same-sex couples interwoven into theatre, film, and television in order to normalize such relationships—to have the fact of such relationships woven back into our popular consciousness as a given. Considering identity politics in this way is not antithetical to original practices of the period. And while certainly it is part of the charm of the play that there are no heroes here (except for Lucius, perhaps), same-sexing the two main relationships can (and here does) underscore the play’s considerations of female power, empowerment, and how women at times constrain the advancement of other women.

An invitation to dinner and a run in the rain: Isabella Buckner (Cassius) and David Bellis-Squires (Caska).

The other major relationship, that of Brutus and Cassius, is a study in just this last instance. Brutus has born the slings and arrows of male privilege differently than Cassius. You can hear it in Cassius’ story of swimming the Tiber with Ceasar and having to save him. In public, Caesar says to others, in Cassius’ hearing, that “she thinks too much.” This sounds like something out of a Jane Austen novel rather than a William Shakespeare play. That Buckner plays the night rainstorm scene in a Nike™ sports bra nicely tugs on local strings. Nike™ headquarters is little more than ten miles from Irving Park. Nike is also the Roman goddess of victory, who egged Zeus on to kill his own father, Chronos, encouraging him to “Gather once more your clouds, lord of the rain!” With her costume choice (which itself asks us to consider the ways in which patrilineal culture forces women to weaponize their sexuality), Buckner pulls together regional associations with Classical allusions to suggest Cassius is great from the side-lines, but questionable when the rubber hits the road.

 Ready for more? Up next tomorrow, Sunday, 23 July, at  Irving Park (NE Fremont):

2:00PM “Much Ado About Nothing”
7:00PM “The Tempest”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.

  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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