TU theatre’s recent production of “Julius Caesar” had everything you would least expect from Shakespeare: a future dystopian America, 14 cast members (rather than the usual ~40) and a script cut down from three hours to one.
Before Tuesday night’s show began, director Laura Skoch explained that the production had been modified in several ways to be performed at regional high schools: a flexible scenery, modern setting, smaller cast and edited script.
TU’s “Julius Caesar,” is going on tour. There was a single free performance at Kendall Hall’s Chapman Theatre last Tuesday. From January 26-27, TU Theatre took the performance to four Kansas and Missouri high schools. From April 6-7 they will travel again, bringing the show to four Texas high schools.
Adapting a three-hour-long play to a one-hour performance has its challenges. Sophomore James Terrell (Casca, Messala, Citizen) said that characters had to be removed, modified and combined. “Cinna the Poet, Brutus’s wife Portia, and some of the other conspirators were either merged or taken out entirely,” he explained. “The challenge [was] to make the story as crystal clear and full of truth as possible. The skeleton of the story remains.”
For me, this made the production difficult to follow at times, as actors moved in and out of the story and adopted multiple roles, often fading back into the sidelines as a “Citizen.” Terrell is right, however, that the skeleton of the story remained.
The play’s dystopian setting was in part a function of the tour. “Originally, we were going to set it up as a more modern-esque adaption. Costuming-wise this would make traveling easier,” Terrell said.
Though the modern setting seemed strange and a little over-the-top to me at first, I warmed up to it as the show went on and I realized how well it fit with the themes of the play.
“As the show developed, there was more of an interest in this near future dystopian idea,” Terrell said. “With the election swirling around during the rehearsal process, more and more of that element played into our production,” he continued.
I definitely recognized the political themes and comparisons as the show went on and thought they were very fitting. Julius Caesar, after all, is a play rife with political drama. Much of the costume and set design incorporated red and blue contrasts — for example, all of the politicians wore blue capes before Caesar’s murder. After the murder, the conspirators reversed their capes to show that the opposite side was red. A high-stakes election is a major part of the play, and was exemplified during the show with a red-and-blue political map that showed incoming votes as stressed Roman politicians paced frantically around the stage.
The setting was mostly conveyed through a series of projected backdrops featuring images of American monuments, photoshopped so that they were surrounded by storm clouds and swaying trees — scenery that definitely set the mood of a dystopian American landscape. This scenery was occasionally replaced by a social media-esque news screen. Members of the chorus (Austen Naron and Emma Lucas,) switched up their traditional role by becoming reporters who were filmed and projected onto the news screen in real time — a tactic which was executed with grace and effectively defined their role within the story.
The show’s sparse scenery lent itself well to the flexibility needed to perform at high schools. The stage was filled only with a few chairs and blocks made of clear plastic which the actors used to sit in, jump upon, hide behind and stand upon for the purpose of making glorious political speeches.
The actors adapted extremely well to the lack of props and elaborate scenery. I was particularly impressed by a scene that took place during a vicious storm. Those who weren’t active in the scene used instruments and tapped on the backs of chairs to make the sounds of rain and distant wind, resulting in an eerily authentic soundtrack for the scene.
According to Terrell, the cast also had to adapt their blocking to the possibility that the eight high school stages they were to perform on could be completely different.
“The director wanted the show to work both in a huge performance space all the way down to a classroom. With that in mind, the cast stayed on stage at all times and there would be certain moments where an actor would turn away from the scene happening in the center so they could then walk on, refreshed and new,” he said.
Overall, TU Theatre adapted “Julius Caesar” into a production that serves its purpose well. It wasn’t without its shortcomings — for instance, though Jacob Patterson made for an impressive and imposing Caesar, there was very little development for the titular character. This may have very well been an effect of the shortened script, or possibly intentional in order to emphasize the other characters’ perceptions of Caesar. Like I mentioned before, the overlap in character assignments and the fact that the actors never left the stage made the show difficult to follow at times.
However, the show’s strengths outweighed its shortcomings. The setting lent itself very well to the themes of the play and current themes in American politics. I can’t name an actor who didn’t give an impressive performance of professional quality, and Mia Graham was particularly stunning as Brutus.
Terrell’s character, Casca, was the one to perform the fatal act and stab Caesar (arguably the most exciting scene in the play, and very well done). “It was a type of character I’ve never performed with before, and it absolutely stretched me both as an actor and as a person,” he said. “Both of my characters, Casca and Messala, served as movers of the story. They have moments where they know something that someone does not, and it’s their job to get that across to whoever is important at the moment, usually Brutus.”
I go to Shakespeare in the Park in St. Louis almost every year, and the TU production reminded me a lot of the 20-minute Green Show they usually have before the three-hour play. It’s like Shakespeare Lite — the most meaningful parts of the show compressed into a shorter production that’s friendly to a variety of audiences.
TU Theatre accomplished this gracefully. Congrats to the cast and crew on a successful adaptation of a timeless classic, and props to them for bringing the arts to regional high schools.