Julius Caesar

Local Arts Reviews


Julius Caesar: Smooth Operators

Austin Playhouse, through July 13

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

While a Democrat will tie himself in knots trying to play by the rules, often humiliating himself in the process, a Republican will do whatever it takes to win, not always to noblest effect: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the tarnished victory in the 2000 presidential election, the campaign to recall California Gov. Gray Davis, and Texas' own charming right-wing offensive to redraw the state's congressional districts -- these are but a few of the high-profile shenanigans of the American right (this paper hasn't the room to list all the lesser ones). It's evidence of that party's desire to create a monopoly on power -- the sort of monopoly once enjoyed to excess by the emperors of Rome.

And behind the exposed and prosecuted faces of the vagabonds of the right (John Dean, Oliver North, Katherine Harris, Darrell Issa, Tom DeLay -- match each to his or her ignoble escapade above) are the power brokers, political consultants pulling the strings from way, way up in the deep, dark fly house. For the last two Republican regimes, the operators' operators were Lee Atwater (who died acknowledging the theatrical farce of politics in a rather Democrat-esque apologia, gross!) and his disciple, Karl Rove (who may discover a way to cheat death the way he's cheating on taxes). While the Deans and Norths fell on their swords (yet emerged oddly unbloodied; thank you, Fox TV), political masterminds Atwater and Rove have seen immortality beckon. Yet where would either be without the brilliant example of the prime political consultant of 2,000 years ago, Marc Antony? Now there was an operator! From the slightest opening -- the opportunity to speak second to the people in the marketplace at Caesar's funeral -- Antony wrought an empire from a democracy, ousting the nerdy senatorial pantywaists for a line of ever-more-dangerous dictators that lasted till Rome burned and the barbarians took over. But that is a story for another play.

This story, deftly directed by Paul Norton for the Austin Shakespeare Festival, isn't a primer on how the Grand Old Party keeps humbling a Congress of asses -- but it might as well be. Brutus, Cassius, and their Democratic lot get their knickers in twists about Caesar's popularity growing out of proportion to his elected officialdom; that bad boy is not playing by the rules, dammit! Their solution is to rid Rome of this emerging threat to democracy by publicly knifing him to death and orating an explanation to the horrified masses. And so the Ides of March, the multiple stab wounds, the speeches, the recriminations, the irrational political decisions, the civil war, and the resulting empire that is exactly what Brutus, Cassius, and their Democratic lot wished to avoid. Don't pose for photos in a tank if you don't know how to fire the guns! While the Democrats dither and fritter away their advantage and popular support, Marc Antony slides in like D'Israeli on his greasy pole, working his political magic. It's terrifyingly familiar.

In an interesting twist, Norton has cast an all-female ensemble (save for the titular character), and it works quite well. Especially effective are Babs George as the brooding, misanthropic Cassius and Susan Dickson as the know-it-all Brutus. While George lurks and slinks, full of bright ideas but unable to articulate them from the darkness of her inferiority complex, Dickson's Brutus makes one puffed-up poor decision after the next, leading to the (surprise!) annihilation of herself, her comrades, and Rome's popular government: Is Brutus on the ballot for the Democratic presidential nomination yet? Well, it's only a matter of time.

Stealing the show, and the entire empire, is Monika Bustamante's Marc Antony. Cold and distant at first, yet honestly freaked out at the murder of her friend and boss, Bustamante's Antony brilliantly makes the transition from terrified survivor to calculating dominator. The ensemble offers a variety of well-explored characters, with Rebecca Roberts making a fine local debut as Portia. The production isn't without its shortcomings: The opening scene is somewhat confusing, and the emblematic stage combat doesn't quite work. Plus, it is hard to recreate "mob" or even "crowd" out of a mere handful of extras. Still, the production is aptly timed and should keep the audience thinking of the eerie parallels between Marc Antony seizing control of the political dialogue and what Mr. Rove is up to these days. The threat that Rove might actually succeed in helping George W. Bush to some sort of Caesarian sweep of power probably won't result in the political assassination of his ward; but with the current crop of Democrats in opposition, Rove won't have to resort to fratricide to attain his -- and his party's -- immortality. Have you registered to vote?

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Julius Caesar, Paul Norton, Austin Shakespeare Festival, Babs George, Susan Dickson, Monika Bustamante, Rebecca Roberts

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