You have to wonder about Brutus: Do you think he had any inkling people would still be talking about him 2,000 years later?
When the Woodward Shakespeare Festival opens its new production of “Julius Caesar” tonight (Thursday) at the WSF stage in Woodward Park, you’ll see Jay Parks in the pivotal role of Brutus, the co-conspirator who weighs the cost of rebellion against Caesar, the most popular man in Rome. I feature Parks in an interview in Thursday’s Life section about the show, which continues through Sept. 14. Here’s the extended version.
Question: For those who aren’t familiar, give a brief synopsis.
Answer: Julius Caesar, victorious in war, returns to Rome as a conquering hero, beloved by the populace. When the Roman senators see the reaction—including Mark Antony attempting three times to crown him as a king—some take this as a threat to Rome. Cassius in particular has serious misgivings about Caesar’s ambition. However, the popularity that Julius Caesar enjoys makes any plot to overthrow him particularly difficult. To offset Caesar’s support base, Cassius makes overtures to Marcus Brutus, a nobleman known for his integrity and idealism; if Brutus were to support it, a conspiracy would seem more palatable to the citizens of Rome. The conflict of the play centers around the decision the conspirators make, and its aftermath.
How does Shakespeare’s account of the events in “Julius Caesar” compare to what historians feel happened?
Shakespeare’s account compresses Caesar’s rise to power into a much shorter and more dramatic timeframe. “Julius Caesar” looks at the tipping point: the moment when Caesar’s popularity has grown so great that some in the Roman senate fear a loss of their own political power. The historical accounts we read in preparation for this production span several years – Shakespeare’s play distills that down to several days. Shakespeare had an uncanny ability to emphasize the most compelling moments in his histories, and to draw out the conflicting aspects of his central characters. Neither Caesar, nor Brutus, nor any character in “Julius Caesar” acts in a manner that can be described in the simple terms of a single action and reaction. The audience gets to see the conflict that arises when characters are forced to make quick and difficult decisions where the stakes are life and death.
Do you find that most people have heard the line “Et tu Brute?” Do you have a stock answer in response when people say it to you these days?
The play is full of quotes that most people will recognize. Antony’s famous speech, (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”) and Caesar’s acknowledgement of Brutus’ role in the conspiracy (“Et tu, Brute?”) are probably the best known. I’ve heard the latter quite a bit, and I usually answer, “Yep, me too.” Sometimes I answer in Latin, which is when people’s eyes glaze over and the subject turns to local weather.
What have you learned about Brutus since you’ve dived into this character?
Brutus is a man who expects quite a lot from people. His sense of honor and idealism set a very high bar for others to live up to. At the same time, he tends to underestimate the potential in others to act in a way that that meets the standard to which he holds himself. Brutus dismisses Mark Antony, for example, as inconsequential: “…given to sport, to wildness, and much company.” Brutus’ inability to recognize Antony’s ability to sway the passion of the roman public is a critical error that endangers the health of the Roman democracy that Brutus most dearly wants to preserve and protect.
Tell us a little about director Erica Riggs’ concept and setting for the play.
Our “Julius Caesar” is set in the early 1960′s. As was Rome in 44 BC, it is a time marked by social and political upheaval. The production addresses the idea of what it means to “live free”, and accentuates the tensions between the post-war establishment and a growing civil rights movement. The conflict between the military-hero, Julius Caesar, and the established power of the democratic senate cuts to the core: Does immense popularity feed ambition? Does ambition breed a tyrant? What makes for good government? Our setting places these questions in a context more familiar to today’s audience.
In this production, Cassius is a woman. Tell us about that.
When you have an actor like Gabriela Lawson (Cassius), you want to cast her in as juicy of a role as you are able! Cassius as a woman puts a very interesting twist on that character’s misgivings about the fitness of Caesar to rule. Does Cassius sense a bit of the glass ceiling between her own senate career and the top rung of government? The relationships Cassius has with the other senators (especially Brutus) have a much different color when she is the exception to the “boys-only club”. The casting choice is so strong, that I’m not sure I’ll look favorably at the play with a male Cassius after this production.
Do you think “Julius Caesar” has something to say about politics today?
For better or worse, the questions the play raises are still around today and always have been. We still question the motives of those seeking power. As a public, we are still swayed by charisma, passion, and vitality. Through the media, we microscopically analyze the strengths and weakness of those who would seek to represent us. Much like Brutus, we idealistically want to believe that those in office have our best interests at heart. Sometimes, like Brutus, we are disappointed in those hopes.
Brutus struggles greatly with his conscience. In your own life, have you ever had such a struggle? If so, were you able to draw on that for this production?
I’ve never struggled with the decision to overthrow a government. But I’ve certainly had (as have we all) many crises of conscience: those moments when I haven’t been sure of the right thing to do. It’s a tremendous tribute to the ability of Shakespeare that he has been able to dramatize the internal conflict we all experience at certain times, and it gives actors a useful tool to draw on: I haven’t experienced the exact struggles that Brutus does, but I understand his struggles better for my own.
What theme speaks most to you in this play?
Personally? The theme that the political is the personal. As far as the scale of political involvement is concerned, I’m on the extremely-engaged end. “Julius Caesar” is Shakespeare’s most overtly political play, and the idealism that Brutus has for the process of politics was not hard for me to be enthusiastic about.
Give us an update on you: what you do for a living, local theater experience, etc.
In real life, I work in marketing and development for local non-profits. In my alter-ego, I’ve played roles in Macbeth (Macduff) and Hamlet (Claudius) with the Woodward Shakespeare Festival; have worked extensively with the Good Company Players and Second Space; and also with Theatre 3 when it still existed here. I’m a hard-core part of the annual Rogue Festival each year, usually in several capacities at once.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Only that I’ve been waiting for several years to have some part in a WSF production of “Julius Caesar”. We have an exceptionally strong cast, featuring Rick Adamson (Caesar), Gabriela Lawson (Cassius), Mohammad Shehata (Antony), Michael Peterson (Casca), and Bridget Martin (Portia). Audiences will recognize many more local favorites in other parts, as well. I hope audience will appreciate seeing our production as much as I have appreciated the opportunity to act it.