Recommended *** Julius Caesar may be Shakespeare’s most accessible tragedy. It can be watched, understood, and enjoyed with almost no previous knowledge of the play. Even in Paper-Box Company’s production of the work, the gender-bending cast in which both Caesar (Amy Malcom) and Mark Anthony are played by women will not confuse audience members very much if they have an understanding of the dynamic of modern gender-reversed casting, especially prominent in Shakespeare’s plays, on the contemporary theatre scene.
Strangely, the gender changes in the play hardly changed its meaning at all, given that was director Lavina Jadhwani’s stated purpose. Instead, her intriguing decisions could have been made just as successfully with a traditionally cast. She made Caesar was more sympathetic than usual for although Malcom plays her with a well-executed stately dignity and presence (Gary Nocco’s costume design helped here), her insistence on appearing before the senate, despite hearing more than one prophecy warning against it, appears to be based on her feelings of a civic duty to do so even in the face of danger, not arrogance, pride, or recklessness.
And while Brutus, brilliantly understudied by Justin Hamer the night I attended (whose nuanced tense, wistful, and pitch-perfect performance made the show) does seem to harbor some romantic feelings for Caesar, there is no reason such a dynamic could not have been accomplished in a homo-erotic context with a traditionally gendered cast, as is sometimes suggested in critical scholarship about Shakespeare’s other plays and in their various productions, such as Prince Hal and Falstaff, and Iago and Othello. That said, both these interpretations enhance and freshen the play, it’s just that they were no way or dependent on the gender-shifted cast, which neither caused nor marred the effect of either of the director’s choice’s
However, Vahishta Vafadari, who did some of the most brilliant fight choreography for the battle scenes that I have ever seen, was greatly miscast as a female Mark Anthony in comparison with Malcom as Caesar. In fact, given exactly how petite and soft-spoken Vafadari was on the stage, greatly exacerbated by a somewhat lackluster performance, it became almost impossible to imagine her triumphing over Hamer’s dynamic and powerfully-acted Brutus.
The technical aspects of the play such as set (Sara Heymann) and lighting (Eric Vigo) were static and basic, but the battle scenes were not. Vafardi blocked the fighting so well that it gave the perfect allusion of the actor’s being badly hurt on stage (although I’m sure they weren’t). All in all, this is a fascinating if flawed production of an excellent and highly accessible Shakespearean tragedy.
“Julius Caesar” continues at the Green House Theatre Center, located at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, through April 3, 2015. Performances are
Sundays at 2 p.m..
Tickets are $25. They can be purchased at www. brownpaperbox.org or by calling the box office at 773-404-7336.