Vagabond debuts new take on Caesar

Queen’s Vagabond attempts ambitious take on Shakespeare to mixed results despite notable acting

Closs and Miller give great performances.
Closs and Miller give great performances.
Vagabond’s production sets Caesar in 1940 France under Nazi rule.
Vagabond’s production sets Caesar in 1940 France under Nazi rule.

Queen’s Vagabond’s production of Julius Caesar, while capably performed, stands as an unfortunate example of ambition outweighing affect.

One way to tackle Shakespeare in the modern and post-modern eras has been to set the stories against a backdrop of 20th century history. The new Queen’s Vagabond production of Julius Caesar is set in 1940 Vichy France, when the nation was under the rule of Nazi Germany.

Reminiscent of Orson Welles’ famous 1937 Broadway production of Caesar, which was set in Nazi Germany itself, the idea is a compelling one. This, taken with director Jacob Millar’s notes in the program, make it clear that this production is intended to cast Julius Caesar as an epic anti-violence parable of some sort.

“It is my sincerest belief that we cannot hope to achieve a meaningful and lasting peace through violence. Sic Semper Tyrannis is never as simple as we would hope. I hope this show affects you as it affects me every night,” he said in the notes.

The intention is there but is undercut by the slight execution.

The set, with its barbed-wire lined walls, aims to recreate the claustrophobic terror of living under a fascist regime, but unfortunately said walls are about three or four feet too short for this purpose.

When Caesar and Mark Antony first take to their podium in one of the play’s opening scenes and the tops of their heads reach a foot above these supposedly menacing walls, the effect is somewhat unintentionally comical. This problem perhaps could have been solved with some starker, more inventive lighting, but alas, this too is a weak spot in the production.

Where the show excels, however, is in the performances.

Fraser Miller, ArtSci ’14, gives a commanding portrayal of central character Brutus, playing him as the calculating man of considerable charisma that he is. Miller’s greatest success is to convincingly portray an intensely serious man attempting to make sense of intensely serious burdens, and Miller manages to convey this even when he is silent.

Zach Closs, ArtSci ’17, is a decent Caesar but an excellent Octavian, and Charlotte Boyer, ArtSci ’14, plays Cassius with appropriate cutthroat vigor.

Charlotte Anderson, ArtSci ’14, makes an impression in the small role of Cicero, remade here into a sort of Aryan ice queen, and you end up wishing she had a little more to do than glower and light up cigarettes every time she takes the stage.

Leonard Wang, ArtSci ’15, however, is an unmissable standout as Mark Antony, giving an incredibly magnetic performance. Mark Antony’s blind passion leads to violence wrongly intended as a corrective to violence, and Wang makes that earnest lust for vengeance believably human and frightening. His performance serves as a hint to what this production wanted to be and could have been.

Julius Caesar houses some fine performances, and it’s a small shame that its underwhelming aesthetics couldn’t support them.

Julius Caesar is playing at the Domino Theatre until March 22. Tickets are available at Tricolour Outlet or at the door.

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