Cast of “Julius Caesar,” now playing at the Josephine Louis Theater at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts on the Northwestern University campus, by Justin Barbin
Cast of “Julius Caesar,” now playing at the Josephine Louis Theater at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts on the Northwestern University campus, by Justin Barbin

The play “Julius Caesar”, written by William Shakespeare and directed by MFA candidate Danielle Roos, opened Fri., evening, Jan. 31 to a sold-out crowd at the Josephine Louis Theater at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. The play first premiered in London in 1599. Shakespeare wrote it to explore the anxiety surrounding the lack of a succession plan for the aging Queen Elizabeth I.

The minimalist, dystopian set (scenic design by Irena Hadzi-Dordevic) accommodates the actors’ entrance as they march on stage. The play, described in the program notes as “Shakespeare’s interpretation of one of the most famous assassinations in world history,” addresses themes such as power, ethics and ambition. The dialogue is Shakespeare’s, and Ms. Roos’s interpretation is both classic and relevant to the age we live in today, especially as the U.S. approaches another presidential election.

The play has been studied and analyzed for more than 400 years, and with good reason – the issues it addresses are timeless: When does a leader have too much power, and by whose definition? Is it honorable and acceptable, or even ethical, to do a bad thing for a good reason? More specifically, is murder justified in situations other than self-defense? How does one determine the truth? Does a self-appointed individual have the right to make a decision that affects the larger population, if the decision is impacted by his or her own self-interests?

The stage cast of 20 is excellent—energetic, expressive, and completely at ease with the complicated dialogue. Three lead actors in particular stand out: Mark Anthony (Jane Emma Barnett), Caius Cassius (Felicia Oduh), and Marcus Brutus (Hale Stewart). Ms. Oduh owns what seems to be at least half the dialogue in Act I. She nails every line with passion, veering seamlessly from raw anger to cold political realism to feelings of fealty and friendship, especially in her exchanges with Mr. Stewart, who easily matches her intensity. Ms. Barnett portrays her character’s sense of reason and conscience with every phrase. Her cadence is heartfelt, poised and controlled.

Color is used sparingly on stage and tells the audience where to look. The clothing worn by the cast (costume design by Drina Krlic) is predominantly a color wheel of muted, dirtied shades of beige, brown or a deep, dried-blood maroon color, depending on the role. Julius Caesar (a charismatic Ryan Foreman) wears robes of red in life and ghostly white as a specter. The sweet and innocent Portia (Olivia Reis) is ethereal in a white gown. Ms. Oduh’s costume, with shades of rich persimmon layered, draped and perfectly pleated, enhanced her strong performance. Ms. Barnett’s smart, Wedgewood blue outfit conforms to the timeframe of the play, yet looks stunningly contemporary and adds gravitas to her performance.

Under Ms. Roos’s direction, the actors move, march and fight with precision, bringing a raw and boisterous energy to the stage. Britain Willcock guided fight choreography.

Despite their spare numbers, the cast ably represents crowds and opposing sides in battle, helping the audience imagine jostling marketplaces and bloody battlefields. Death scenes are vivid and personal, highlighted by brilliant flashes of intense light and sound. They provide a stark contrast to the dark and intentionally dirtied stage. Gabrielle Strong served as lighting designer, Jeffrey Levin managed sound design.

As any student of history or Shakespeare knows, the play is riddled with death. Another tragic dimension Shakespeare is the concept of unfulfilled promise and potential. Caesar’s roles as leader are cut short. He never has the opportunity to grow into his responsibilities, to learn from his experiences or to change. The characters making the momentous decisions in “Julius Caesar” that lead to civil war are elders; they are not of the generation who will be forced to live with the changes that result of bad decisions. Also, in Ms. Roos’s interpretation, Portia is pregnant. Her despair in being left out of her husband’s inner life – he refuses to confide in her – leaves her feeling isolated, lonely, and without hope. Overwhelmed and psychologically unwell, she ends her own life.

It would be simplistic and inaccurate to draw parallels between current political actors and the historical ones in the play. Ms. Roos is optimistic about how audiences will respond. She said, “I hope people will think about conversations that are taking place and which ones are not taking place in their own spheres. What can we influence by participating in the conversation? Are we aware of and critical of mass mentality? Which ideas should we support and be engaged in? Ultimately it’s up to us. We are responsible for making changes in our own spheres of influence and making sure they take place.”

The play runs through Feb. 9. Tickets are available online and at the box office.