by JK Clarke
Wouldn’t it be delightfully ironic if gangs of high school girls protested Pocket Universe’s new all-female production of Julius Caesar, in which the characters are portrayed as a bunch of catty prep school girls plotting to take down one of their own? They’d have just as much justification as the agitators who recently interrupted two performances earlier this summer of The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of the Bard’s timeless political classic (in which Caesar was portrayed as Trump-like figure—see Theater Pizzazz’s review here) this summer. When all is said and done, it’s still the same play with the same message: that taking matters of state into one’s own hands (rather than allowing the system to self-remedy) never ends well. So if one set of supporters can get that worked up about the play, why can’t another (like high school girls) when their “group” is used as a model for this age-old character who mishandles power. But no, there certainly won’t be any such protests because the idea is totally ludicrous.
Pocket Universe’s production is, however, somewhat more imaginative than The Public’s, drawing parallels between the vicious political rivalries of the hallowed Roman Senate and the mean girls of a private high school’s corridors. The comparisons are startlingly apt. Conceived by Alyssa May Gold and directed by Katie Young, it’s eye opening to see this Julius Caesar—give or take some hefty edits (for time, largely)—play out among rival teens in skirts and pigtails instead of polished politicians in Brooks Brothers. The lesson that comes in loud and clear through both these productions, speaks to power, its abuse, demagoguery, and the means by which those problems should be managed.
Young’s staging is particularly novel and creative: the set (Les Dickert) is a chalkboard laid flat, with a perimeter of fluorescent lights that bring it to life. Around the chalkboard floor’s edges characters’ names are scribbled, and as they are killed later in the battle stages of the play, they are crossed out by an actor wielding a large stub of chalk. Chalk ends up being a weapon, as well; and Caesar is, in fact, struck down by a group of circling girls, ex-ing her out with their dusty, pastel weapons.
I personally find the play somewhat dry and lacking both humor and personal moments (especially when scenes of home life are edited out for time), making the political scenarios—the meat of the play—more reliant on strong acting and direction. And while Madeline Wolf as Cassius stood out most for her strong acting, it was Young’s innovation that provided the most intrigue. The “girls” (as they referred to themselves throughout, e.g. “you cruel girls of Rome!” instead of “men” as written) bouncing onto the stage to a hip-hop song as if at a pep rally was ideal for setting the scene.
The play’s only great distraction came via the facility. While spacious, the Access Theater is not exactly soundproof, and throughout the production I attended it seemed there was a ballet class for elephants being conducted on the floor above. At times it seemed the ceiling might come crashing down. Not ideal for an intense production of a very serious subject matter, especially as the noise drowned out several lines. Nonetheless, Pocket Universe seems to be onto something here. One got the feeling that this could be a workshop for a very intriguing and revelatory production of one of the great—and presently most controversial—of Shakespeare’s plays.
Julius Caesar. Through July 8 at Access Theater (380 Broadway, below Canal at White Street). www.caesarbeware.com
Photos: Carol Julien