Julius Caesar at IRT

You probably think you don’t like Shakespeare. After all, he writes in incomprehensible old English and isn’t exactly relevant after 500 years.

You’re probably wrong. You don’t like reading Shakespeare. But Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read. Struggling through his words in English class is a chore, hearing them read and acted and lived and felt as they were meant to be is a joy that almost everyone can partake in. Spoken and combined with solid acting, Shakespeare is accessible and relevant.

Brutus (Ryan Artzberger) with the murder weapon

Julius Caesar at the Indiana Repertory Theatre is an admirable take on the classic play. The costume design is modern and updated: actors wear suits and ties instead of togas, looking like they’re on their way to Capitol Hill rather than the Roman Forum. Political posters are slapped on the wall, reminiscent of Che Guevara propaganda pieces. It’s all very current. Just in iambic pentameter.

The story is well-known: golden boy Brutus is goaded into killing popular dictator Caesar by the weasly Cassius. Protege Marc Antony turns the tide of public opinion against the assassins, and civil war ensues. With all the political intrigue, the wrangling, the bargaining, the promises of doing something vile for the good of the country ring very true in today’s contentious political climate. Combine all that with the choice of black actors to play political power couple Caesar and Calpurnia, and you have a story that could be ripped from today’s headlines.

Cassius (Rob Johansen) reveals his true loyalties

Andrew Ahren’s Mark Antony is passionate and perfect. His famous funeral oration for Caesar is genuinely moving, with his scathing, back-handed condemnation of the assassins as “honorable men” is the standout scene of the play. Rob Johansen’s whiny and high-strung Cassius is marvelous, pitting factions against each other and eventually dying a broken man.

Mark Antony (Andrew Ahrens) mourns the fallen Caesar

Unfortunately, not all of the cast is as strong. David Alan Anderson as the title character comes across as affable and likable, but not as a threat, nor as a strong leader of men. And most disappointingly, Ryan Artzberger’s Brutus fails to convince us of his torment. In the pre-show announcements, they mentioned that one actor was not feeling well that evening–perhaps that explains the lack of conviction and passion from the actor.

As I’ve come to expect at the IRT, stage design was gorgeous, especially when the city of Rome dramatically and literally falls away to reveal a stark, broad battlefield with shadows and smoke. Silken streamers became tents, dappled light became rain. Another stellar job by scenic designer Gordon Strain and light designer Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein.

Should you go see Julius Caesar? It’s an interesting play, and well worth seeing. It’s one of Shakespeare’s easiest to understand, and makes a good entry point for children or the Shakespeare-phobic. If you’re willing to listen hard and engage with the actors, you’ll walk away well satisfied.

Julius Caesar runs through November 5 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Tickets are available at irtlive.com. The reviewer’s tickets were provided courtesy of IRT.