The set-up: The plays of William Shakespeare are prime sources for updating in time, and for change of locale, often well-served since many patrons may have seen several straightforward versions of, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream. The current production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at Houston University Downtown's O'Kane Theatre does none of that, though the production has slashed the play in half, dropping subplots. But the production is nonetheless innovative - it has returned to speaking the words as they were spoken in the time of Shakespeare, somewhat like "back to the future".
The execution: In the days preceding the opening, I mused on the question: why is it a good idea to revert to archaic pronunciation? But first let us deal with the production purely as theater. This is a bare-bones production, all black background, with black cubes serving as chairs, and with the actors garbed in contemporary black shirts and trousers, with an un-ironed sheet serving to suggest a toga. All fine and good, and the sporadic addition of a splash of color - blood red, naturally - .became all the more effective.
But the trousers were rumpled, and those of Brutus seemed about six inches too long, so there was the danger of this seeming like a SNL parody of an inexpensive production.
That thought disappeared with the performance of James Pendleton as Cassius, as his magnetic stage presence, resonant voice and nuanced reactions made clear that some important theater was underway.
Kevin Lusignolo played Casca - Lusignolo was magnificent in the Crucible last year, but here seemed unmoored, as though not fully committed to a character he did not understand. Richard Joseph Vara played a variety of characters well, and credibly, and served as narrator when required, and Lindsey Ball portrayed with distinction Portia and other female characters.
Andrew Maddocks found the words, but never the inner authority, of Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all". His acting gifts are apparent, but this is not the role for him. Charles Hutchison is quite good as Caesar, though, as I'm sure you know, Caesar exits early. Luke Fedell is well-cast as Mark Antony, providing the athletic build of a warrior, and letting us see the character beneath the duplicitous masquerade he must play to achieve his goals.
The assassination of Caesar, and the battles scenes were well-staged - interesting and effective. Kate Pogue directed the adaptation, and did it well. It was her idea to use the 16th century pronunciations, after she had learned of them being used in a production of Romeo and Juliet in London in 2004. There are, however, several inherent problems: the audience must strain to listen harder, moving the play toward the words and away from the passions; some words are lost, reducing comprehension; and some of Caesar's words seemed cockney, undermining to a modern ear his authority.
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I was glad to learn that "blood" is pronounced "blued" and be reminded "Caesar" is pronounced "Sayser". (Had the second syllable been accented, it might have suggested South American dictatorships, which could have added relevance - but we were confined to the.16th century.)
I couldn't find an advantage for the audience in this use of archaic language, though I accept the director's belief that it may have inspired the actors. My conclusion is that use of 16th century pronunciation is like putting pebbles in your shoes before going on a hike - you can do it, sure, but is it a good idea?
The verdict: An interesting and innovative use of archaic English pronunciations turns out to be a curiosity more than an improvement, but the genius of Shakespeare's study of power and corruption still pulses with life. This abbreviated version is worth seeing, and the absence of subplots clarifies the intricate relationships among the cabal that slew Caesar.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is presented May 3 at 8 p.m. and May 4 at 3 p.m., at the O'Kane Theatre, UHD, 1 Main Street. Admission is free. There is construction at 1 Main Street, so leave extra time to find the right access. For information or ticketing, call 713-529-2577 or contact www.uhd.edu.