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Shakespeare & Originals Review: S&O'S Modern-Dress Julius Caesar Featured Some Fine Acting, But Ultimately Disappointed

October 26, 2003 - Durham, NC:


Shakespeare & Originals' recent modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, presented Oct. 9-25 at Manbites Dog Theater as part of Manbites Dog's "Other Voices" Series, boldly but foolishly attempted to compare legendary Roman general and would-be dictator Gaius Julius Caesar (100?-44 B.C.) with President George W. Bush. It is knee-jerk liberalism at its worst.

Director Tom Marriott dressed the triumphant Caesar (Kenny Gannon), conqueror of vast amounts of barbarian territory on two continents and victor in the recent Roman civil war against Pompey, and (later) many of his fellow Romans in Desert Storm era camouflage clothing; and Marriott littered the stage, at the opening curtain, with a vivid assortment of contemporary anti-war posters: the bloodied trampled leftovers of a parade of 1st century B.C. peaceniks whom (it is implied) the mighty Caesar brutally suppressed.

The situations in Rome, circa 44 B.C., and the present-day United States could not be more different. The Roman Republic was at its height, recovering from a bloody civil war; the United States is at war with radical Islamic fundamentalists who want nothing less than to destroy the American way of life and exterminate every Jew on Earth.

Julius Caesar's all-too-obvious aspirations to usurp the power of the roughly 300-member Senate of the Roman Republic and become sole dictator, answerable to no one, alarmed the conservative establishment and inspired Caesar's enemies and some of his erstwhile friends, such as Brutus (Jay O'Berski) to assassinate him. Only a member of the lunatic left would see similar aspirations in President Bush.

Moreover, shooting rather than stabbing Caesar to death on the Ides of March proves awkward. The ensuing scene entirely a product of Tom Marriott's fevered imagination in which an Angel (Dorrie Casey), singing in French (?), escorts the thoroughly perforated Julius off this mortal coil is simply ludicrous.

Later, when several of Caesar's assassins choose suicide over capture, public humiliation, torture, and execution by the forces of Mark Antony (Derrick Ivey) and Octavius (Adam Sampieri), they have no swords to fall upon just 9mm pistols.

There are other disturbing (and wholly apocryphal) moments, courtesy of Tom Marriott. The worst is probably Brutus' ultra-close shave, a stomach-turning scrape and slice with the Roman Republic's dullest straight razor, while the oily Cassius (Jeffrey Scott Detwiler) convinces Brutus to betray his friend Caesar and join Caesar's enemies in a plot to kill Caesar on the Ides of March.

The late great Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner (1926-83), a hip way-ahead-of-his-time comic genius of the 1950s and 1960s, once did a sidesplitting parody of the story Julius Caesar, transposed to present-day Rome, Georgia. If only director Tom Marriott's interpretation of this tragic masterpiece by William Shakespeare had a smidgen of the style and wit that kept Brother Dave's audiences rolling in the aisles.

Other than dressing in cammies to remind us of President Bush's controversial visit to the aircraft carrier, prematurely announcing that the war in Iraq is over, Kenny Gannon has little to do except smile and wave as Julius Caesar. Nevertheless, he does it well.

Derrick Ivey makes an eloquent Mark Antony, but Adam Sampieri is a colorless disappointment as young Octavius. Jay O'Berski and Jeffrey Scott Detwiler are quite good as the honorable Brutus and the treacherous Cassius. Lissa Brennan also makes the most of all-too-brief cameo as Caesar's barren wife Calpurnia, and Mac Monroe is haltingly effective as the eerie bloody toga-clad Soothsayer whose fervent attempts to convince Caesar not to go to the Senate ultimately prove futile.

Brutus and Cassius' principal fellow conspirators Decius (Byron Jennings II), Casca (Michael O'Foghludha), Ligaria (Nicole Quenelle), and Metellus (Lance Waycaster) all make the most of their moments in the spotlight. And Cheryl Chamblee (Portia), Dorrie Casey (The Angel), and Mark Miller (Cinna the Poet) make favorable impressions in minor roles.

Ultimate fault for the failure of Shakespeare & Originals' production of Julius Caesar lies not in its stars, but in Tom Marriott's idiosyncratic Bash-Bush directorial interpretation in which Marriott even has one character speak his lines in Polish (!) for no discernable reason. Instead of elevating Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece to a new level, Marriott buries it under an avalanche of irrelevant comparisons to contemporary politics.