Hail, Distaff!

Radical Shakespeare reimagining finds women rooted in the ugly mess inherent in the patriarchy

Confession: Whenever I hear of a radically reinterpreted take on one of Shakespeare's plays, I squint my eyes and wrinkle my nose in skepticism. Some of these productions have proven successful; yet some, after 25 years of having witnessed them, still make me squint my eyes and wrinkle my nose.

Winding Road Theater Ensemble's production of Julius Caesar with an all female cast and set in the present falls between those extremes. It is assuredly a radical reimagining, one that requires work from the audience.

Michael Fenlason, a writer and one-time artistic director of the now defunct Beowulf Alley Theatre, is responsible for the adaptation, and he also directs the show. He's done an admirable job of both, having the help of a capable cast keeping the story rolling pace-wise.

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by radical reworking. In Shakespeare's day, there were no sets or costumes to speak of. If the actor declared they were in Verona, they were in Verona. Our experience with theater is quite different four centuries later. So if one envisions placing the story in a 19th century setting and in a different country, as long as it makes good enough sense, there's usually no problem, nor is it too great a stretch for us. However, changing all the characters from male to female is, in my book, radical.

My judgment for the success of a radical approach to Shakespeare includes answering a couple of questions. First, does the adaptation offer fresh insight into Shakespeare's story and themes, and does it stay true to those themes without getting in the way of them? Second, does it help us look at the play in a fresh way so that our takeaway is new, clearer and more penetrating and expansive?

The press materials that advertise the show have this tag: "Ambition is not just a man's game." So, we here we are given a look at how the brutal story of Julius Caesar plays out in the hands of women.

To refresh your memory, Caesar was a popular leader of the Roman Empire, which consisted of a vast reach of land, including England, much of what is now Europe and into Africa. Governed by a version of a democracy, there was leadership by a senate of elected members who were always fighting with each other and their constituents and the huge military machine overseen by those not always working in the country's best interest. There was talk of Caesar's rise to a more singular leadership and it was feared that he would have too much power. Although he had denied any such aspirations, jealous and ambitious "friends" decided that a reach for power should not be allowed to happen. They plot to kill him, and they do, but the consequences consist of civil wars and a clamoring for power and revenge. To put it bluntly, the empire was a mess.

Fenlason sets his story in the present, in the U.S., in an election year—this election to be precise—and Caesar is running for president when things turn nasty.

Of course, to pull off this switcheroo, there are instituted numerous conventions that support the reconfiguration of action and sexes. The names and pronouns do not change, for example. Susan Arnold, who plays Caesar, is addressed as Julius Caesar, and T Loving as Brutus is referred to as "he." It's a little jarring at first but it really doesn't trip us up too much. It is, however, more than a bit jarring when their wives are, well, their wives. This choice opens up a broad new context, and a rather disturbing one: Is this some strange new world governed by brutish lesbians? This convention we are asked to buy into actually leads to a disturbing implication.

Leading into the opening of the show, women in power suits or the equivalent wander around the room, and we watch as they scroll down their cellphones checking their email or whatever; some actually have phone conversations. Besides the giant banner proclaiming "Julius Caesar 2016," this is the only real indication of a particular time.

The first act is really quite riveting. Besides 16th-century language, handled for the most part quite well, and the actions and conversations of conspiring characters that take place with, of course, a strong dose of secrecy, there's a looming sense of disaster. In fact, that does come to pass as we witness Caesar's stabbing. (Yes, in 2016, one targeted for death would meet with a quieter, more sophisticated offing. Here is another time the conceit Fenlason works with asks us to accommodate a travel back into the day of assassinations by knife.) The second act dispenses with suspense as the warring parties spar and fight and are killed or kill themselves. It's a very different feeling than is built in the first act, and it's not as clear and involving. And it hits a woeful pitch early on and never lets up.

Good performances abound. Arnold is a charismatic Caesar and is done away with much too soon (although she does have a great death scene.) Amy Scully as Cassius is a pretty but deceitful cur who argues convincingly that Caesar should be done away with, and Roxanne Harley is downright scary as Casca, another conspirator. Maryann Green is a dynamo as Mark Anthony; her "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech is passionate and personal. Loving as Brutus, such a pivotal role, has the foundation of the character, but she begins with a worried countenance that only gets more intense as the story progresses. It's not a nuanced performance, which it can and needs to be.

It is a great irony of feminism that it has been perverted to mean that women can now seek careers and hold positions of great power (although with less pay than their male counterparts), when that was not the defining issue. That issue has to do with a revision of the patriarchy that defines our culture. Women in general have quite different sensibilities than men—this has been studied—particularly when it comes to how groups operate and how power is shared. Ambition might not just be a man's game, but the ruthless actions we see here are clearly consistent with a patriarchy that still reigns.

So does this Julius Caesar meet the requirements when looking at such a radical retelling of Shakespeare's work? Maybe.

It's an intriguing idea, and the first act makes us think, this might just work. But when all is done, does seeing women playing out what is obviously an act rising from a men's world give us a fresh insight?

If the point is to allow us to see women rooted in the ugly mess too often inherent in a patriarchal culture, it just might.

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