Director Eric Cohen and his company the Crew of Patches do remarkably little to modernize this production of Julius Caesar, but one of their alterations--casting a woman, Jennifer Tober, as Cassius--is a rewarding way to re-read the play. In Shakespeare's script, Cassius can already be said to embody the feminine side of the Roman politico. Here he makes his entrance in a skirt. And that is his entrance, because Cohen retains all of Shakespeare's language. Even without changing a word, though, Cassius' gender change feels natural--or certainly far from gimmicky.
The non-traditional casting decision comes with other minimal changes that modernize the production: Characters wear business suits; recorded music links the scenes. The understated gender change--limited, practically, to clothing--helps emphasize what now comes to seem like Shakespeare's central, timely theme: how the feminine confronts the masculine in the rise to power. The feminine--characterized by Shakespeare as emotional honesty and an interior life that matches public action--meets ambition, the bravado that must always fester in private. Having a woman playing Cassius simply helps us shift Shakespeare's questions to the present day: How do emotionally candid people operate in more modern places of power, such as Washington or Wall Street?
Cassius is the only conspirator in Rome with claims to emotional maturity, and Tober makes him wise, sensual, and feminine. As he delivers loaded lines such as "here, my naked breast" and "our...sufferance shows us womanish," he touches his comrades gently on the elbow. As he candidly admits his feelings, Cassius also surrenders himself to playing the help-mate for other, more duplicitous men. He soothes neurotics in several scenes, but is destined to play the bridesmaid and never the king.
Watching Shakespeare so directly delivered, of course, takes patience--and the friend of the director (overheard at intermission) was candid with his own sentiment when he asked, "Is that it?" Told there was another hour to go, he grunted, in spite of his friend's investment. (How did the Globe's groundlings take three hours of performance like this?).
But patience is worthwhile here: Caesar's first entrance, with drooping belly, pouting lip, and congenial smile for those who support him, is a sweet moment--one reminiscent of the similarly vulnerable and sometimes-wronged Clinton (not an acknowledged connection, but one which casting again helps us make: Roger Stude, who plays Caesar, does slightly resemble Clinton). When the lines are recited well, such as in Tober's first speech to spur Brutus' ambition, it is easy to see why Shakespeare, with all his poetry and reason, maintains his fame.
When the lines are recited awfully, the moment is also awfully painful. The repeated sin here seems to be the idea--intermittently enacted--that Shakespeare has three extreme types of expression: the shout (with spit, to show murderous anger), the whisper (for antiquated heart break, which killed Portia but which the actors themselves don't feel), or loud, foolish debauchery (always filled with fake laughter, and always unbelievable).
The actors, however, who recite their Shakespeare with meaningful intonation are wonderfully successful: Marc Antony (played by David Hilder) speaks his "Lend me your ears" monologue beautifully, delivering it from one step higher on stage than the previous, more honest, speech of Brutus (played by Gabe Samrock). The parallel staging and juxtaposition pose a question: Why do certain ploys earn their speakers fame, while other, more innocent, ones are almost cruelly forgotten? Brutus, after all, said, "Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me," just before Antony's "Lend me your ears," but, alas, gets no credit for his precedent.
The space at Theatre 22 (on West 22nd Street) is small and intimate, with a few rows for the audience on either side of a narrow divide. The central, narrow stage helps evoke the feeling of Roman streets: Brutus speaks directly to audience members, and the Roman masses pass closely, shouting. While not for the short of attention, this performance is a thoughtful presentation of Shakespeare's play, and well worth the patience of interpretation.