Touring Gangland with Julius Caesar

The Queens Players' Julius Caesar offers Shakespeare’s play in a well staged, physically vigorous production. Set in an unspecified urban gang environment, the production makes good use of the Secret Theatre’s space, and nearly pulls off this updated version of the play. Director Richard Mazda, working in one of the more interesting off-off-Broadway spaces I have encountered of late – a former industrial space with a large, flexible theater, a loading dock and a number of ancillary spaces used for this environmental production – tricks Shakespeare’s play out with the combat-booted, ripped-jeans-and-leather-jacket look that has become the expected attire for disaffected youths. An odd mix of machetes, daggers, shot guns and martial arts weapons has everyone in this production ready to go to work on each other. A cast of mostly young actors, with many of the roles played by women, is headed by the very competent Gil Ron as Julius Caesar, Alex Cape as Marcus Brutus and David J. Fink as Mark Antony.

Mazda choreographs and paces his actors well, and creates a credibly excited, physically urgent atmosphere. Making excellent use of a simple lighting setup (no designers are credited in any of the design areas) and adding some well chosen sound effects, this production is almost convincing. Why then did I feel like I was attending a high-school project, intent to make Shakespeare palatable to urban kids who might otherwise skip the class?

The culture clash between Shakespeare’s text of political assassination and fight for succession and the concerns of Street Gangs of Queens never quite works for the play. Even though the actors have mastered Shakespearean Language 101 well enough, they (with Caesar, Mark Antony and Sarah Bonner’s Portia the notable exceptions) rush through the intricate arguments and oratories of the text in a uniform shouting style that renders the text hard to follow. And the issues of the play – assassination as a tool of political idealism versus murder as a stepping stone to power, fear of tyranny versus fear of losing clout -- do not strike me as the concerns of teenage and twenty-something gangbangers. On the other hand, many opportunities are missed where believable imagery might have steeped Shakespeare’s characters much deeper into a contemporary world.

The use of Johnny Cash for pre-show and intermission music is an odd choice in that it suggests the world of the parents of these actors. The environmental staging is slightly irritating, not only for the awkward tour guide role of the soothsayer (“follow me…”) but also because it does not contribute in either lending atmosphere or meaning anything more than the main stage area implies.

Dressing Caesar in a floor-length white gown – vaguely Islamic looking – is a jarring choice, though it does make the blood look prettier than on the black costume of his first appearance. But it also makes him appear the innocent victim, the lamb brought to slaughter, which seems inconsistent with the rest of the gang concept.

Ultimately, in spite of its flaws, this attempt at giving contemporary relevance to a text by dressing it in new duds is still entertaining to watch, perhaps less for the text than for the worthwhile intent and boisterous enthusiasm of the young troupe.

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