LOGAN – The Utah State University Theatre Arts Department’s ongoing production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a fascinating lesson in thinking outside the traditional theatrical box.
Because of its universal themes of political manipulation and betrayal, Julius Caesar has for decades been one of the Shakespearean works that directors most often go to when they plan an innovative staging.
The most controversial of those non-traditional productions was mounted in 1937, when a young Orson Welles drew critical acclaim for costuming his cast in uniforms reminiscent of those worn by Nazis in Germany and Fascists in Italy.
In 1984, the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York City produced a modern dress Julius Caesar set in contemporary Washington D.C. rather than Rome.
In 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company in England staged a production using all Black actors. That same year, an all-female production debuted in New York.
While not going quite that far, director Michael Shipley has imposed his own vision on the Shakespearean tragedy.
First of all, costume designer Jess Wallace has clothed the cast in gorgeous attire with a Renaissance flair. After all, togas are so passe.
Then Shipley has taken a script with only two female roles and filled his production with dozens of actresses, including Bailee Miner in the leading role Marc Antony and McKenna Walwyn as Marcus Brutus.
In an even more intriguing twist, those women are not portraying men; Shipley has transformed those characters into females.
That gender-bending is a little unsettling at first, but rapidly becomes second nature because Miner and Walwyn play their parts with such aplomb. Despite her role in the assassination conspiracy, Walwyn still gives Brutus an admirably quiet dignity while Miner plays Antony as cold-bloodedly pursuing revenge for Caesar’s murder.
Those actresses share the stage with Jack Carter Roberts as a self-absorbed Caesar and AJ Black as the manipulative Cassius. Black’s portrayal of the chief conspirator is particularly compelling.
Among this production’s other strong points is a marvelously abstract set design by Sera Shearer that features numerous technical gimmicks, including dripping blood at appropriate moments.
Julius Caesar is also replete with mob scenes, which Shipley skillfully directs. The assassination at the end of Act 1 is appropriately bloody and Caesar’s funeral plays out convincingly as a battle for the hearts and minds of Rome’s populace.
Overall, this ongoing USU production successfully breathes fresh life into this all-too familiar drama.
Evening performances of Julius Caesar are slated at 7:30 p.m. in the Morgan Theatre on the USU campus on Wednesday through Saturday. A matinee performance is also scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday.