Regional Reviews: Chicago
As has become typical as Invictus celebrates a year in its new space, Kevin Rolfs has created a set that employs the intimate black box to its best advantage. The audience faces a more or less traditional stage, defined by a set of blocky, irregular steps upstage right. These are painted to suggest the marble and stone of public spaces, including the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The upstage wall and the support column downstage right are plastered with overlapping, weathered posters featuring Caesar's profile, and later these are not quite covered over by a ragged curtain of camouflage netting.
There's wisely not much else to the set, save a series of black, floor-to-ceiling partitions that serve as tormentors at stage left, and some toppled, shattered columns later in the story when the battles between the forces of Brutus and Mark Antony are raging. Both of these elements suggest a problematic reverence for the classical and the traditional, inviting the audience to question this throughout the dizzying shifts in the mob's sympathies.
As effective as the set is, some of the other visuals don't always translate well. Brutus, for example, is associated with the Gadsden flag, whereas Julius Caesar's supporters (and later the supporters of Mark Antony and Octavius) wield–and sometimes wear–the American flag. Although the choice seems to be a critique of simplistic polarization and wholesale demonization of the political other (underscored by the director's program notes), there's no real way of sidestepping the "very fine people on both sides" note that this ultimately sounds.
Some of these problems bleed over into costuming, although Emily Bloomer's design is very good on the whole. The senators who assassinate Julius Caesar all wear black suits with identical red satin ties, leaving Publius in a non-committal grey suit and Mark Anthony in a black suit with a blue tie. This ends up being a bit of visual overkill, which is unfortunate, as it detracts from an earlier scene–truly spectacular in how eerie it is–in which the conspirators emerge, one-by-one, from the shadows, clad in hooded black rain slickers. It is also worth noting that the red/blue choice works quite effectively later as Brutus and Antony's military forces are distinguished only by small patches on one arm of their camouflage uniforms. These are often not visible to the audience, so during the skirmishes, we have to confront how impossible it is to tell friend from foe.
The sound design by Petter Wahlbäck and lighting design by Joe Larkin add a great deal to what is, despite a few on-the-nose details, a thought-provoking and productively disquieting approach to the play. The storm that Wahlbäck and Larkin create is critical to establishing the intense paranoia and rage the conspirators are experiencing and generating in one another. Casca's monologue at the height of the storm and his meeting with Cassius are rendered both bizarre and strangely believable courtesy of the sound and lighting here.
Director Charles Askenaizer, who also plays Marcus Brutus, elicits brutally effective individual performances and collaborative work from the cast. Askenaizer himself traces the challenging arc of his character from seemingly principled senator into a military commander who is, by turns, fueled by rage and bewildered by the chaos he has somehow been called on to harness and direct.
Mikha'el Amin is exhaustingly compelling as Mark Antony. During his funeral speech, he expertly pulls off the illusion that he is handing control of the scene to the mob, all the while tugging deftly on their strings. Askenaizer's direction makes it clear that this play belongs in large part to Brutus, and without at all taking away from Askenaizer's excellent work in that role, Amin's performance makes one regret that Antony looms larger in the minds of the conspirators than he does in the text itself.
The work of both Amin and Askenaizer is elevated, in particular, by Daniel Houle as Caius Cassius and Joseph Beal as Casca (as well as other roles). Without at all lapsing into imitation or caricature, Houle and Beal evoke the cast of characters' working behind the scenes, whispering in ears, and taking center stage in the absurd theater of U.S. politics. In a more circumscribed role, Chuck Munro's performance captures the sense that Julius Caesar, himself, is a die already cast, still spinning in the air through the play's first half.
It's to Askenaizer's credit as both an actor and director that he shines a light on Portia and Calphurnia's scenes with their husbands. Rachel Livingston and Maria Clara Ospina, respectively, are tremendously moving in their rage and despair as they plead with their husbands to see the world as it is. Ospina's casting as Lucius, the young servant of Brutus, also extends a humanizing effect to him.
In the supporting cast, Charlie Diaz, Joe Feliciano, Colin K. Jones, Gavin Mueller, Huy Nguyen, and Rick Yaconis, Brandon Boler, John Chambers, and Ryan Cody fluidly shift between their various roles when everyman interchangeability is what's called for, yet each clearly has a specific identity and backstory which each of the actors makes available for the audience to pluck out and examine from moment to moment.
Julius Caesar runs through November 20, 2022, at Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.invictustheatreco.com.