“Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers”: A review of CCM Acting’s Julius Caesar

Isabella Wagner is outstanding as the lean and hungry Ciaus Cassius. Wagner strength is finding the emotional core in Cassius’ speeches and using that emotion to connect to her fellow actors

by Alan Jozwiak

The death of Roman general and soon-to-be-crowned emperor Julius Caesar was a seminal event in world history.  Adapting to the stage the events leading up to the assassination and its political aftermath, William Shakespeare creates a taught, compelling political thriller charting the downfall of Caesar’s assassins, focusing on the noblest Roman of them all, Marcus Brutus.

CCM Acting’s current production of this play highlights the role that emotion and spur-of-the-moment passions played in the political proceedings surrounding the death of Julius Caesar.

Director k. Jenny Jones puts Julius Caesar on its feet.  Being a Certified Fight Director, Jones has her ensemble of actors constantly moving and interacting throughout the play.  This approach worked to great effect during the funeral oration scene where the fickleness and malleability of the crowd is matched by their agitated hand gestures and boisterous body movements.  It gives life to a scene that can sometime downplay the crowd’s reactions to highlight the eulogies.

Scenic Designer Abigail Heyd creates the world of ancient Rome through a bare set containing an assembly of black boxes and cylinders with accompanying ropes, ladders, and draperies that connect the second-floor balcony of the Cohen Family Studio Theater to the main stage.  This arrangement aids in the flow of actors on and off stage and created a more dynamic staging to the play.

The ensemble of CCM actors is strong, with a several CCM Acting seniors having strong performances.  Isabella Wagner is outstanding as the lean and hungry Ciaus Cassius. Wagner strength is finding the emotional core in Cassius’ speeches and using that emotion to connect to her fellow actors. Ciaus Cassius sometimes gets portrayed as a cold calculating schemer; Wagner’s portrayal also shows the burning emotions guiding his political machinations.

Kristina Lucy plays the noble Marcus Brutus and strongly articulates that stoicism and nobility throughout the play through a series of disastrous decisions which ultimately lead to Brutus’ ruin.  Another strong performance comes from Shakoria Davis playing Caska.  In other productions of Julius Caesar, Caska tends to be more of a blow-away assassin that is easily forgettable.  However, Davis’ portrayal of Caska is that of a fully-engaged assassin who is willing to strike the first blow against Caesar and face the consequences of that action with resolve and defiance.  Davis’ performance made me rethink Caska’s role within the play.

While no production is perfect, one piece of stage business in the first half ended up marring the production.  During a crucial scene between Ciaus Cassius and Marcus Brutus, two actors in the background were rolling a cylindrical box across the stage.  While that movement supposedly imitated thunder from an oncoming storm, it ended up drowning out the actors’ lines and taking me out of the action.

In titling this review, I used Brutus’s line he says to Ciaus Cassius about the assassins thinking of themselves as sacrificers and not butchers.  By play’s end, the assassins are sacrificed to their ambitions.  They fail to stop the tide of turning the Roman republic into an empire and end up hastening the downfall of the republic–a sobering reminder of what happens to political cabals. 

Julius Caesar runs December 2-5, with performances Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm, with matinees at 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday.  For more information, visit the CCM Acting website at: https://ccm.uc.edu/onstage/tickets.html    

CONTENT ADVISORY: “Julius Caesar” is for mature audiences. The production contains depictions of violence, blood, as well as themes of suicide and self-harm.

Alan Jozwiak is a local playwright who also teaches at University of Cincinnati.

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