If you feel that politics has lost its veneer of rationality and that our supposed leaders wander in a constant state of blindness and confusion, then William Shakespeare has a play for you. Julius Caesar sends a tough message about what happens when principled resistance meets realpolitik. Preventing tyranny proves to be all but impossible, requiring compromises that lead inexorably to deeper division. In imperial Rome it seems, peace does not stand a chance. Lit Moon’s boisterous production mines this world historical tale of treachery and woe for what laughs it can yield, a strategy that actually hews closely to the cosmic, metapolitical vision of the playwright.
The characters are studies in classic forms of Roman philosophical temperament, with the Epicurean Cassius (Michael Bernard) drawing the Stoic Brutus (Brian Harwell) into an unstable alliance based on a shared fear that Julius Caesar (Matthew Tavianini) will ascend beyond their control into tyranny through the enthusiasm of the people. Adrift on this raging sea of popular acclaim, Caesar lacks an anchor for his decisions, fluctuating wildly as he first embraces, then repudiates the various supernatural signs that foretell his fate. In addition to being a vivid picture of an elected elite in turmoil, Julius Caesar is also a double portrait of marriages rocked by the tremors and more emanating from the public sphere. Portia (Victoria Finlayson}, wife to Brutus, attempts to reason with her husband and wants to understand what’s going on, but he’s reluctant to divulge his secrets to her. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia (Paige Tautz), occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, indulging in signs and portents – “Beware the Ides of March,” etc. Tragically, it’s Calpurnia, the superstitious one, whose advice turns out to be correct. It seems that in this world, fears based on fantasy are as valid as those based in fact.
There are lots of things to like here. Harwell provides a relatively stable center around which Shakespeare’s carnival of conspirators can orbit, and Nina Sallinen breaks the Roman system of groupthink with wrenching, otherworldly cries as the Soothsayer. In a new turn that’s been created for this latest iteration of the production, UCSB’s Jason Bowe delivers a wild and funny version of the mistaken identity scene involving Cinna the poet, as opposed to Cinna the conspirator – Bowe plays both roles. Let’s hope that the troubles caused by tyrants can be dealt with more effectively in this century than they were in Rome two millennia ago.