Review: Hear Murder Under a Blood Moon in Caesar: A Surround Sound Experiment
Knock at the Gate presents an audio production of Shakespeare's tale of tyranny and murder.
I read in my invitation to a preview of Caesar: A Surround Sound Experiment that the audio play was to be enjoyed "anywhere in space, on a pair of headphones, under lunar light." I was immediately intrigued — but where to find unobstructed lunar light on the island of Manhattan? I briefly considered my building's rooftop, before deciding on the back patio of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park, where I have fond Shakespearean memories courtesy of Hudson Warehouse.
This new audio Caesar is not by that troupe, but Knock at the Gate, a new company formed during the Covid pandemic that produced an audio version of Macbeth last Halloween. As with that previous production, the proceeds of Caesar will go to benefit the Actors Fund. The official run takes place May 25-27, coinciding with the "Super Blood Moon," a lunar eclipse that makes the moon appear red — as if bloodied by a gang of Roman senators.
I wanted to get as close as possible to that experience in the week before, which is how I ended up listening to this excellent pared-down sound adaptation (by director Joseph Discher) in Riverside Park under the watchful eye of my nearby husband (despite being aurally transported to Rome, I was still in an NYC Park after dark and I was wearing his new noise-canceling headphones). I am pleased to report that the only one who was stabbed during the hour-long affair was the Roman dictator.
That would be Julius Caesar (Scott Wentworth), who returns to Rome triumphant after defeating his rival, Pompey. General Mark Antony (Sean Hudock) thrice offers Caesar a crown, but in a conspicuously public display of humility, he thrice refuses (one shudders to think what Caesar would have done with an Instagram account). Senator Cassius (Joel de la Fuente) and Tribune Casca (Mark H. Dold) are not fooled by the act. They know that Caesar will not be satisfied until he sacrifices the Roman Republic to his massive ego. They hatch a plan to assassinate Caesar, enlisting the support of an at-first-reluctant Brutus (Derek Wilson). But the joke's on them: The common people love Caesar a lot more than they love the Republic — and they hate the arrogant senators most of all.
I was glad to listen to Caesar while staring at the moonlit Civil War monument, if only to be reminded of our own national aspirations to Roman glory. Discher's smartly shaved adaptation (which left me missing none of the excised passages) emphasizes the tale of a populist egomaniac contending with an entrenched aristocracy. If recent American history (and the widely misunderstood Trumpius Caesar in the Park) offers any indication, this is a story that is destined to be repeated.
The cast grippingly conveys the variety of fauna inhabiting the Roman swamp. With a sinister lilt in his voice, de la Fuente captures the simmering resentment that drives Cassius to murder. Dold plays a world-weary Casca, and we can practically see him roll his eyes when he reports Cicero's response to Caesar's crown show: "Ay, he spoke Greek." Wilson's Brutus has a slight vocal fry, as if he is always recovering from a hangover, making his initial reluctance to move on Cassius's plot that much more plausible. Playing his wife, Portia, January Lavoy conveys the frustration of a trophy wife who has been left to collect dust for far too long. She asks, "Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure?" And we can tell that for this lot, there's nothing worse than dwelling in the suburbs.
Under sound designer Leigh Roberts, the gentle rumble of thunder or the bubbling of fountains underscores many of these speeches. For the most part, this unobtrusive binaural design heightened the atmosphere and even occasionally raised hairs on the back of my neck. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but conjure the image of soccer cleats in soggy grass when I heard the revoltingly squishy assassination.
My preview ended briefly after that dramatic scene, with Antony's muted rage bouncing off the walls of the Senate chamber. If Hudock's "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech is as good as his "Cry 'Havoc,'" listeners to the full version (just 95 minutes) are in for a treat under the blood moon.