By Byrne Harrison
I would much rather see a passionate production of a play with a few flaws, than a technically precise one with no soul. Richard Mazda's "gangland" version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is definitely a passionate production, and one that is not without its flaws. However, it is exciting and inventive, so the flaws leave less of an impression than they might.
Julius Caesar marks the third installment in the Queens Players' "gangland" Shakespeare series. Rather than evoking the marble glory of Rome, this Caesar has a burnt-out, urban feel. Kind of like the Hollywood versions of 1970s New York - "The Warriors" meets Shakespeare.
Mazda's Caesar is an environmental and interactive piece. From their entrance into the Secret Theatre's loading dock area, the audience members are surrounded by the cast - all in character. Guided by the Soothsayer (Kaitlyn McGuire Huczko), the audience moves from location to location - at times merely observing the action, at others invited to join in as part of the Roman citizenry. The most effective use of this conceit is in a scene set in Brutus' house where the conspiritors are meeting to plan the bloody deed. Set in a bare basement room of the warehouse complex, with the audience standing around Brutus' table, it was easy to imagine oneself as part of the conspiracy, something that doesn't often happen in a standard "fourth wall" production. It is pretty exciting.
Unfortunately, the movement from location to location also has its downside. Primarily the time it takes to move a theatre full of people and get them in place for the next scene. It pulls the audience out of the moment, and effectively stops any tension that the play is building. But this minor irritation aside, the use of the unusual spaces really works.
One of the other issues will not really matter to everyone. I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to Shakespeare's language; I want to hear his words and not much else. Given the interactive nature of this production, there is quite a bit of extra dialogue added to the play. The Soothsayer addresses the audience several times, the crowd ad libs lines in their scenes (especially at Caesar's arrival in the beginning of the play and during Brutus and Antony's funeral orations). This added dialogue, modern and prosaic, is jarring when placed against Shakespeare's poetry.
Julius Caesar features a large, talented cast. Among the standouts are Gil Ron as Caesar, Alex Cape as Brutus, Sarah Bonner as Portia, and Suzanne Lenz as Calpurnia. Anthony Martinez' Cassius has the requisite lean and hungry look, but there isn't a lot of nuance in his portrayal. His Cassius is all action and power, which is fine, but he doesn't demonstrate much of the silent danger that leads Caesar to comment, "He thinks too much, such men are dangerous." Oddly, this is the exact approach that David J. Fink takes in his portrayal of Mark Antony. He's quiet, vigilant, and seems to speak only grudgingly. Not the best choice for a man whose oration is going to turn a city against Brutus and Cassius. His famous speech is presented without any irony, and this makes it fall flat.
Those issues aside, there is a lot to like about this production. Mazda's direction is solid throughout and his vision is clear. There is also a nice use of multi-media during the final scenes that really brings the battle to life.
The costumes are terrific, particularly in the use of white robes for Caesar in his death scenes. This robe is so different than what the rest of the cast is wearing that is really emphasizes that this man is one who not only wants to be emperor, but sees himself as almost a god.
Overall, this is a production worth experiencing, and one that will be different from most of the other Shakespeare being presented right now. If you've never been to the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, be adventurous and visit. You'll enjoy this production, but more importantly, you'll see that not all of the inventive theatre in NYC takes place in Manhattan.
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd St.
Long Island City, Queens
Through October 2nd