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Art & Culture

Scena Unleashes a Powerful Julius Caesar

By William G. Schulz

Now comes Scena Theatre Artistic Director Robert McNamara with a creative and muscular new staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Caesar, through September 24th at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Street, NE.

With this production — and it’s a doozy — McNamara and Scena kick off their 31st season as one of Washington’s treasured, small theater companies.

(l-r:) Robert McNamara, Robert Sheire, Ian Blackwell Rogers. photo--Jae Yi Photography.

(l-r:) Robert McNamara, Robert Sheire, Ian Blackwell Rogers. photo–Jae Yi Photography.

McNamara’s Caesar is set in present day “Rome,” which is quickly understood to mean Washington, DC. Throughout the show, three television monitors above the stage flip through various street scenes in DC — particularly the corridors of government power — interrupted occasionally by screaming “Breaking News” headlines from the “RNN” television network — get it?

And with another glaring sign of our times, the play’s program contains the following warning: “Julius Caesar contains violent themes.”

(l-r:) Danielle Scott, Robert Sheire, Amanda Forstrom, David Johnson, Kim Curtis, Greg Ongao, Ron Litman. photo--Jae Yi Photography.

(l-r:) Danielle Scott, Robert Sheire, Amanda Forstrom, David Johnson, Kim Curtis, Greg Ongao, Ron Litman. photo–Jae Yi Photography.

Ahem. It is hard to imagine who would buy a ticket to this play not knowing its exploration of political violence and murder — yet alone, feel the need to be warned in advance.

But if the irony is intentional, it works. Not since the Nixon Administration has Washington been so awash in sinister plots and treachery while the rest of our divided country strains under homicidal white supremacist rallies and, through Antifa, a tragic re-awakening of belief by some on the Left that violence can be justified as a tool of politics.

At the top, of course, is President Donald Trump, a narcissistic man who relishes his ability to stir division and unrest, and who is become the most despised president in U.S. history. McNamara, on the cover of the show’s program, has appended the word “Tyrant” above the title of the Bard’s play — who else but Trump comes to mind?

On one hand, McNamara’s Julius Caesar is overboard with sometimes ham-fisted devices to show the relevance of Shakespeare’s writing to the world today. On the other hand, being smacked with a heavy dose of Shakespeare’s insight into the blackest corners of the human heart could hardly be more timely.

Scena’s talented ensemble cast brings all of Shakespeare’s beautiful language and searing analysis of the human condition to abundant life.

The show opens with Caesar (McNamara) and his entourage marching on stage. With his black leather trench coat, aviator sunglasses, and gaudy gold medallions, the great general looks more like a street gangster with assorted hoods and low-life associates in tow. Warned by an oracle to “beware the Ides of March,” Caesar brushes off the superstition, though he is well aware that danger lurks.

Thus, the scene shifts to the Senate’s Caius Cassius — played with sinister brilliance by Scena’s David Bryan Jackson — who slithers over to his unwitting chump, Brutus (Ian Blackwell), to hiss those immortal lines: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

A victim of his own vanity, Brutus soon agrees that murdering Caesar is not a selfish ploy after all, rather a surgical action for the good of the state.

Cassius likewise sways other cowardly co-conspirators and they quickly lure Caesar — against the pleas of his wife, similarly afflicted with portents of doom — to a vicious slaughter by knives. Convinced of their righteousness, the assassins plan a state funeral where they intend to praise the man they have just murdered.

(l-r:) Danielle Scott, Robert Sheire, Amanda Forstrom, David Johnson, Kim Curtis, Greg Ongao, Ron Litman. photo--Jae Yi Photography.

(l-r:) Danielle Scott, Robert Sheire, Amanda Forstrom, David Johnson, Kim Curtis, Greg Ongao, Ron Litman. photo–Jae Yi Photography.

But the transparent plot is soon revealed; Rome burns and falls into chaos at the loss of its leader. Marc Antony — played with passion by Barry McEvoy — vows revenge on his Caesar’s killers, unleashing the essential tragedy of Shakespeare’s play: The delusion of those who believe that rank evil can be unleashed in therapeutic doses and then quickly re-bottled.

McNamara’s brief references to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and state funeral seem wrong and unfair. Kennedy was no tyrant, and there is no evidence that anyone other than a lone madman was behind his tragic murder. But this is perhaps beside the point.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — as presented by McNamara and Scena — serves an urgent reminder that, even when a hated man holds power, resorting to violence and murder begets more of the same and imperils the foundations of democracy would-be assassins claim to hold dear.

For tickets, call box office at (202) 399-7993 or visit Scena’s website. <https://atlasarts.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S0H00000KUVTtUAP>

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.