Shakespeare is immune to stage directors. Set his work on Pluto and it won't diminish his unceasing fascination, consummate artistry or eternal observations on the human condition. Put him in modern dress or place him in voodoo Haiti; he remains triumphant. There is no one like him in dramatic history; he's impervious to quackery.
While Intrepid Fringe's sci-fi riff on Julius Caesar (c. 1599) does no harm to the Bard's fast-paced romp through a few turbulent years of ancient Roman history, it's only gloss. The good news is that the tragedy's heated swirl of politics, its tale of revenge, its rich prism of characters, its dissection of personal ambition against a nation's welfare, or even its unyielding look at the braying mob that's easily swayed by popular opinion, is not lost under the goth Star Trek trappings. (It's refreshing to know that in the far, far distant future, we'll all be dressed by Montrose's Erotic Cabaret Boutique.)
There's been a recent theater movement of gender reversal: 4th Wall's delightful Much Ado; Rogue's deliciously wicked Matt and Ben, and now IF's immersive fourth-wall breaker, Julius Caesar. Except for Cassius, he of the “lean and hungry look,” all major male roles – Caesar (Kelly Girtman), Antony (IF co-founder Tracy Elizabeth Hults), Brutus (Destyne Miller), Octavius (Elle Starrunner), Casca (Nkemakolam Ajiodo) – are played by women. Calpurnia (Matthew Kelling) and Portia (Arrian Brantley), wives to Caesar and Brutus, are played by men. Fortunately not in total drag, but in gauzy shifts that hint at their distaff roles. Trey Fluge and Samantha Krebsbach round out the cast.
In theory this works well. Why shouldn't there be power plays among women in power? But if you're going this far in your interpretation, change a few of the playwright's pronouns along the way. Why not “husband” for Caesar's “wife”? Switch out “her” for “him”? If you're going to upend Shakespeare, go for it! A man in flimsy tunic playing loyal housewife doesn't quite cross the subversive line IF intends to cross.
I should tell you that we're in the year 4000 A.D., on the spaceship Roma, orbiting the planet Europa. Women rule the universe. And why not? I don't think the lust for power cares about gender. Other than the opportunity for everyone to wear Xena warrior princess garb, sport nifty laser weapons on their wrists and wield aluminum prods as swords, the notion of setting Caesar in outer space is quickly forgotten as the story consumes us. And how far into the future are we when cell phones and tablets are still the rage? Brutus reads his funeral oration from a suspicious-looking iPad Mini. What, no holograms of Caesar's bloody body? Sound designer Howard Williams adds an eerie overlay of techno-Copland and electronic hum to this space odyssey.
It doesn't really matter where or when director and IF co-founder hal evans places Shakespeare; how does Shakespeare fare? Not too shabbily, if you please. While some members of IF falter in delivery and may be unfamiliar with the playwright's advice to “speak the speech...trippingly on the tongue...give it smoothness,” no one stumbles enough to do irreparable damage.
Mr. evans, with a director's penchant for some unnecessary slo-mo sequences, gives Caesar a hearty pace, spreading the actors through the auditorium to interact with us so we feel the moment. Acting in a variety of subsidiary roles such as Cobbler, Cinna and Soldier, evans is a natural and we eagerly look forward to seeing more of him onstage. Tracy Elizabeth Hults, as Marc Antony, has vigor in spades and delivers drama's most famous oration (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen...”) with fiery, intense passion. (In the production's most effective moment, audience members were gently herded about Caesar's gurney as Hults dramatically thrust their hands into the stab wounds on Caesar's tunic.)
Destyne Miller, as honorable, virtuous and conflicted Brutus, grows into the demanding role and, by her inevitable end, earns our deserved pity and terror.
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But the revelation in this production is Brian Powell, as opportunistic Cassius, the conspirator who turns Brutus to the dark side. I do not know this actor's previous work, I'm sorry to say, but what a thrill to see someone so comfortable and effortless in a role, someone who embodies the very text. He looks lean and hungry, per Shakespeare, and his cultured, resonant baritone adds depth and welcomed sparks to IF's production.
Finding a space to perform is a daunting challenge for small companies, and IF makes do at Unitarian Fellowship on Wirt Road. It's not an ideal venue, for sure, but the rental price was probably right. The flat pew seating, without a rise, hampers sight lines, and there's no room for a lighting grid, so the lights are turned on full blast. (The company makes amends, somewhat, by explaining that the Globe performances had no lighting, either, playing during London's daylight.) These aren't optimal conditions for any company, but it works. Under Shakespeare's magic, we forget such impediments.
Julius Caesar was a tremendous hit in Shakespeare's lifetime. Scholars assume this was the play that opened the Globe, and its theme of royal assassination, right of succession and civil war struck a nerve with Englishmen struggling with a failing, heir-less Elizabeth I. It will forever pack a punch, whatever the political climate. The far side of Saturn's moons isn't as far away from intrigue, revenge and envy as we might think. Intrepid Fringe gives these intergalactic yet Renaissance Romans a semi-successful pop-cultural facelift. Live long and prosper, IF.
Performances of Julius Caesar continue through February 4 at the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston, 1504 Wirt Road. For information, call 830-370-5907 or visit brownpapertickets.com. $20-$35.