Man landing on the moon. The Vietnam War. Two gulf wars. VCRs. Video games. Cell phones. The Internet. Cassette tapes. Compact discs. DVDs. AIDS. Reaganomics. Bush. Clinton playing hide the cigar. Son of Bush. Obama becoming the first African American U.S. president. These are all things that have come — and in many cases gone — since Julius Caesar was performed at the first Colorado Shakespeare Festival back in 1958.
It is only fitting and poetically symmetrical, then, that Julius Caesar should once again grace the incomparable Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre during the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season. Here’s hoping that the CSF’s run garners less death threats than NYC’s Shakespeare in the Park’s did. That version used a Trump stand-in for Caesar and thus riled red-state feathers because, well (SPOILER ALERT), Caesar does get stabbed to death.
The perpetrators of the resulting furor forgot two rather important facts. First, Julius Caesar clearly contains a decidedly anti-assassination message. For the love of Shakespeare’s frilly collar, all of the principal assassins die in the end! Second, the Caesar of Julius Caesar is a good man and a great ruler. He is beloved by virtually all of his subjects. He refuses, on multiple occasions, to be elevated to king and thus transform a democracy into an autocracy. He is at peace with his baldness. Does that sound anything like the orange-skinned, Twitter-addicted, combed-over blowhard that is Donald Trump? As laudable a leader as Caesar (Robert Sicular) is, he stands in the way of the acquisition of more riches and power by some of Rome’s richest and most powerful. In particular, Caius Cassius (Matthew Schneck) wants Caesar gone to make way for the more pliable Marcus Brutus (Scott Coopwood). After convincing Brutus of the necessity of Caesar’s demise and Brutus’ ascension, Cassius rounds up a handful of like-minded lackeys, and the lot of them carve Caesar up like a Thanksgiving turkey. And that’s all before the intermission.
Aside from the coming of uppances to the conspirators, the second act’s highlight is Mark Antony’s (Christopher Joel Onken) famous, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech. Often and rightly cited as an example of outstanding rhetoric and persuasive speaking, that speech is the linchpin of the second half of Julius Caesar. Thankfully, Onken does it justice. His delivery begins appropriately grave before slowly but steadily crescendoing to a climax that incenses the masses who minutes before were happy to spit on Caesar’s grave.
I am far from the first to note that although the play may be called Julius Caesar, its protagonist is clearly Brutus. Shakespeare knew how to put asses in seats, and people simply aren’t going to show up for a play called Marcus Brutus like they will for one called Julius Caesar. It’s the same reason Vegas doesn’t boast a Brutus’ Palace. Given the importance of Brutus to Caesar, I am happy to report that Coopwood’s conflicted, slow burn of a performance delivers a Brutus to remember. As high as I cocked my eyebrow at Coopwood as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew is as loudly as I clapped for him as Brutus in Julius Caesar.
For anyone weary of Shakespeare in outer space or the myriad other modernizations that Shakespeare festivals all over the world dabble in, the CSF’s Julius Caesar is beautifully classical. It takes place in ancient Rome just as the play was originally written. Scenic Designer Caitlin Ayer’s simple bi-level stage backed by screen-adorned metal scaffolding evocative of Roman columns combines with the period costumes by Clare Henkel to transport audiences to a Rome of old. Of course, watching the actual moon rise stage right as the play proceeds does nothing to impinge on the naturalistic grandeur of things.
Embrace the Ides of March and get thee to a performance of Julius Caesar.
On the Bill: Julius Caesar. Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University of Colorado Boulder, coloradoshakes.org. Through Aug. 12.