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‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’ Review: Some Hits, Some Misses

"The Tragedy of Julius Caesar" ran at the Loeb Ex Theater from April 11 to 14.
"The Tragedy of Julius Caesar" ran at the Loeb Ex Theater from April 11 to 14. By Courtesy of Lisa Lin
By Hannah E. Gadway, Crimson Staff Writer

“The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” is over 400 years old and about an event that occurred over 1,600 years ago, but the Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s latest production of the work feels surprisingly pertinent. Directed by James P. GaNun ’25, this play about betrayal and honor interprets Shakespeare’s work with wit and a deep understanding of what the Bard’s words truly mean. Still, it has its faults and sometimes attempts to balance more than it can manage. “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” hits when it focuses on its source material’s contemporary echoes, but it leaves the audience lost when it tries to transport itself too far away from Shakespeare’s work.

Despite its title, “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” had its best moments when it played with its comedic elements instead of its tragic ones. The entire play is funny and entertaining, allowing the modern audience to engage with Shakespeare in a timeless way. When Caesar’s ghost (Chinyere S. Obasi ’24) appears to Brutus (James J. Farr ’25), for example, he pops back into the narrative from the catwalk in a stark white outfit, illuminated in a spotlight. While Brutus shrieks below, Caesar’s ghost waves to the audience with a tongue-in-cheek grin before lecturing Brutus about his future. Side characters like Casca (Clara E. Shapiro ’27) are brought to the forefront for comic relief, Cassius (Jonathan A. Schneiderman ’25) produces cowardly shrieks and small giggles, and Portia (Kyra S. Siegel ’25) amps up her crazed personality for laughs.

GaNun writes in the program: “I hope you are able to laugh and have fun while watching this show.” The play achieves his goal, as the Bard’s clever wordplay and understanding of comedy are apparent throughout the play. Emphasizing the comedic elements elevates the accessibility of the entire show.

When the play begins to twist Shakespeare’s original setting, though, things begin to go astray. The show’s departure from the original in its costuming and makeup could have benefitted from a more cohesive theme to justify its changes. According to the show’s program, GaNun pitched this production as “Julius Caesar in Space,” and the costuming by Giselle N. Paulson ’27 and scenery by Kelly Liu ’25 certainly reflects this futuristic setting. The production strays away from Roman garb, instead favoring dark fabrics, corsets, and glimmers of silver and gold. The clothing leans a little too deeply into the vampiric — Cassius’s dark eyeshadow and swooshing cape, for example, are more reminiscent of a ghoul than a cunning conspirator. These looks pair strangely with the characters’ makeup, designed by Kimberly Baptiste ’23, which consists of colorful glitters and dramatic lips.

Despite the claim that this production is set in space, the scenery does not reflect this placement, with the set consisting of large black-and-gold, faux-marble pillars and a pedestal made to look the same. The combination of makeup, costuming, and set design distracts from the cast’s strict adherence to Shakespeare’s words. Though the departure from the original setting may have been intended to reflect Shakespeare’s universality, it instead delves into a mishmash of looks that may confuse instead of captivate.

The actors, meanwhile, danced around sticking closely to Shakespeare’s original characterizations and totally distancing themselves — with highly successful and middling results. Cassius is conniving and literally hand-rubbingly evil, sometimes appearing more akin to Iago than a bold Roman. He is also startlingly codependent on Brutus, and Schneidermann and Farr emphasize the homoerotic tension between the two characters with lots of cheek-grabbing and close moments. Despite changing Cassius’s original portrayal, this interpretation enhances the play as it brings out the theme of fanaticism, making Cassius a gem of the show.

Some other performances feel a little too off-script, however. Significant cuts are made in the production, mostly to the benefit of the play’s run time, but this resulted in Mark Antony (Jordan J. Woods ’25) and Octavius’s (Chinyere S. Obasi ’24) tension-filled relationship not getting enough time on stage. Additionally, while Julius Caesar himself is endearingly funny at times, the character occasionally strays into buffoonery in the service of comedy. This change made his dramatic murder scene feel a little less epic than it normally does. The alterations made in service of the plot were excellent, while the ones made to cut down the show’s length sometimes changed essential characterizations.

Shakespeare has been performed countless times in foreign lands, times, and even planets, but the Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s version somehow felt the most fresh, hard-hitting, and relevant when it stayed grounded in the streets of Rome. While the production seemed confused in its technical elements, it is still able to stay on track with its interesting performances. Overall, the play proves that sometimes leaving the Bard alone — albeit with some shortened sections — is the best way to speak to modern audiences.

“The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” ran at the Loeb Ex Theater from April 11 to 14.

—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at hannah.gadway@thecrimson.com.

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