Julius Caesar on Old Main Lawn

Julius Caesar
Free and Open to the public
7:30pm, Old Main Lawn, tonight and Friday night

Important note: I will be applauding and recommending PSU’s production of Julius Caesar in this post. But there are several disturbing moments. Some trigger content: actors carrying real assault weapons, a blank shot fired at a prisoner in a black hood, sounds and lights of a guerrilla battle field. If this content or the sound/light stimuli are too much to handle, I do not recommend attending.

In fall of 2009, I attended at Penn State School of Theatre production. Romeo and Juliet. They staged it against the Alumni Center. It was cold. I huddled under a blanket, shook myself to stay warm. I thought I saw a shooting star and gasped; it was a moth falling in the glare of the stage lights above our heads. The whole thing was magical.

Last night, I attended another School of Theatre production: Julius Caesar, set against the Roman Columns of Old Main. The actors were tiny players against the enormous stage, their characters small against the immovability of fate.

JC is one of the Shakespeare’s I haven’t read. The historical plays were the least engaging to me back when I first attempted the Great Bard. The language fell on me fresh and clear. Everything surprised me. I didn’t know the play was actually about Brutus and not about Caesar at all. I didn’t know that it was about friendship and politics and fear of power.

Shakespeare well spoken falls along a pattern of breathing. It’s language twists and turns along. It surprises and undercuts the hearer. It’s hard to do. And let me say: these actors did an impressive job. I could follow even the most complex monologue even with accents.

The adaptation was astonishing. And extremely uncomfortable. The setting is a “modern African country”. The point is to demonstrate that this story is a familiar, recurring one: a story of power, the questions and confusions, the meaning of love, and the relationship of oneself to ones nation state. It’s complicated and passionate and possible to read it a million ways. I could not align myself with any of the players. We simply watch the tragedy unfold, and how the removal of one power out of fear opens the power for others. By the end, Brutus and his compatriots face Mark Anthony and Octavius before a battle. Brutus and his men are black and look like what we expect from guerrilla fighters on the news. Anthony and his men are white and wear formal uniforms; they are colonialists.

But perhaps most disturbing was a scene with bandits and a Roman citizen, whose name unluckily corresponds to one Julius Caesar’s murderers. His head is covered in a black hood and he is dragged to the top of the steps, crying out. Two actors shoot blanks at his head. He goes still. I carry more photo images in my head than I want of captives wearing black hoods before they are executed. It was a frightening, upsetting moment. Yes, this story is a current story. Human nature continues its uncontrolled madness towards death.

It’s hard story to hear. I hid my face in my lap at many moments. And the crew and actors carried the moments well. Projecting a story like this across an open field is no small task.

My one complaint: the ensemble crowd scenes undercut otherwise impressive speeches. Poor Mark Anthony gave his astounding rhetoric to a crowd moving with all the earnestness of an Intro to Acting class, a comparison I’m allowed to make since I took Intro to Acting back in the day and was as earnest and awkward as I could be. And there we so many higher female voices that the crowd’s vocal roar never reached a pitch of fiery anger or passion.

Caesar stands above the Senate before his death.

In conclusion: I highly recommend going in the next few nights. Be sure to wear lots of warm clothes as the temperature drops steeply after the sun sets. Blankets and hot drinks also help.

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