It's not often that Shakespeare makes headlines. But after the Public Theater's politically charged production of Julius Caesar, the fight for Rome has never been more contentious. And yet, depending on your vantage point, the classic drama can assume vastly different forms. In Central Park, it took the shape of a cautionary tale about the consequences of irresponsible political protest. Downtown at the Access Theater, however, that same story has materialized as a parable about the seemingly life-or-death power struggles that ignite in the midst of tortured adolescence.
Creator Alyssa May Gold (who also stars as Brutus) has set her rendition of Julius Caesar (directed by Katie Young) in an all-girls high school with a cast of six women portraying all of the play's iconic politicians, soldiers, and renegades. In this new context, Caesar's assassination transforms from an act of physical violence to one of social cruelty — something with which infamous movie and television characters like Regina George, Tracy Flick, and every other girl who has fallen prey to a high school coup are painfully familiar. It's a world where less blood is spilled, but as anyone who's maneuvered the politics of teenage hierarchies knows, the stakes are just as high.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What gave you the idea to build a version of Julius Caesar around an all-girls high school?
I saw Julius Caesar for the first time about two years ago. The second Brutus started talking, I was so stunned that I recognized my teen self. It was the first time I'd really seen someone like that onstage who was using logic to try to explain intense emotion and ultimately kind of missed the point of both. It's so teenage. You're trying to figure out, "Who am I, really, between what I feel and what I think?" It started for me with the idea: "Could we do this with a teenage Brutus?" And then from there, the most dramatically effective thing to do was make them all students and make them play this out. Making it single sex felt easier to keep the focus on the story and the relationships if we just had them all in a neutral playing space. Because everyone is wearing uniforms, they all look the same and you have to deal with these people based exclusively on their actions.
There's very little explicit violence in your version of Julius Caesar. In lieu of murders, you cross out names with chalk, and chalk dust takes the place of blood during the assassination of Caesar. What inspired that choice?
It was really early on that I realized, the second you kill someone, there would be adults. There are teachers, there's the police. So once I started thinking about how else we could do it, I thought it could just feel like death. That opened it up for me to deal with one of the biggest things that I certainly felt a lot as a teenager — feeling like something is life and death in the moment, but if you just hang on, it's all going to be okay. That felt like a really worthwhile message to explore.
How do the dynamics you mine in your Julius Caesar reflect your own high school experience?
Middle school was more of the social agony. What I remember so clearly about it was feeling totally out of control of my emotions and the people around me. We were all just trying to hurt each other. I think that's something that we tend to write off. We think, "Oh, those are just girls fighting over their friendship bracelets." They're not. If they're fighting over their friendship bracelets, there is a power struggle going on that to them feels like a fight for Rome. I think we don't really give girls room to explore that on stage or in movies. I don't think there's a lot of exploration of how women relate to power. There's a lot of how women relate to power via sex and finding our power among men. But between each other — we all have hopes and dreams and desires and want to team up to do things, and those teams have power struggles. If I had seen this in high school, it might have been helpful to know that I wasn't alone and that there was something real at play.
Has it been fun for you and your whole cast of women to play with these classic Shakespearean roles that are traditionally reserved for men?
It's so much fun! Every time Brutus and Cassius have their fight, it's just this unprecedented moment of, we actually get to have a real fight. They're fighting about something so tangible. Brutus needs Cassius to get the money because she can't get the money, but they need to pay the troops to fight the war. Cassius needs Brutus to let her go bribe people to get the money and is mad that Brutus is being a hypocrite. But underneath, they're saying, "We were supposed to be a team and you let me down." I've never gotten a chance as a girl to have a fight like that with another girl where it's just so purely, "I miss my friend." Weirdly, this feels the most like getting to actually play women. I also love the scene when all the conspirators meet for the first time and it's this group of people who really think they're going to save their country. To get to do that with a group of girls who are all so strong and know who they are and know what they want and then are able to find the vulnerability underneath that — it's such a joy.
Anyone who hears the idea of a Julius Caesar performed by high school girls will immediately think of Gretchen Wieners's speech in Mean Girls. Was that movie in your brain when you were putting this production together?
That speech is hilarious. I was aware of it and I definitely sat down and tracked through the movie and just thought it was genius. I think Cady is way more Brutus than Gretchen is. Janis is Cassius and says, "We gotta take Regina George down." And then Cady overthrows her and Gretchen and Karen are more like the plebeians who will go with whoever is in charge. That's what's cool about Shakespeare. There is something so true underneath it that you can do it as Mean Girls, you can do it as The Social Network, you can do it as Election, and then you can do what we're doing, where you leave the play alone. You take the words as they are, lay it on top of this school, and see what that does.
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