Updated: Mar 18, 2019
★★★★½ - Delicious
There's nary a fault in the stars nor a more fitting time for Nevada Conservatory Theatre's all-female ensemble presentation of William Shakespeare's 1599 tyrannical tragedy "Julius Caesar," playing now at UNLV's Black Box. As a learning theater, NCT is able to nurture experimentation so that in this case their talented female actors, who may always face a dearth of weighty roles, can cut their teeth playing substantial parts written for men. The risk paid off. With their gripping and explosive version of 'Caesar' the company has achieved "gender fluidity," a concept that in a recent interview guest director Beth Lopes said they hoped to explore.
We know the actors are women. We know they are portraying men. It doesn't matter. The pronouns stay the same but we hardly notice once the production hits its stride. There is an adjustment period at first, as we settle into the rhythm of Shakespeare's verse at the beginning of the show. But isn't there always a settling in with the Bard? The brilliant text then takes over and the performers are simply human beings being human, flaws and all.
The illusion of gender fluidity does get challenged here and there, especially when the two female characters Portia and Calpurnia appear and the notion of sexuality comes into play. And as timely and timeless as the politically charged story may be, it's a credit to Lopes and dramaturg Dr. Lezlie C. Cross that the well-thought-out presentation doesn't feel like a commentary on the real-world political climate at hand. Design elements do vaguely evoke the late 1930's era and the enduring parallels to history are certainly there, but the show defiantly stands on its own.
The first half of the play features the conspirators plotting and committing the murderous attack, while in the second half they become warriors battling to the bloody death. The assassination of Caesar is the point around which the story revolves, but the play isn't really about him at all. In the role of the iconic "dictator in perpetuity," Tola K. Lawal gives the regal bearing and authoritarian bent of the great conquering general with pride and charisma blended in, then in the second half unleashes a fierce beast when she steps into the part of Caesar's avenging nephew and heir Octavius.
The humble and introspective conspirator Brutus is the heart and soul of the story, wrestling with his conscience even as he coldly stabs his friend Caesar on the Ides of March to save Rome from tyranny. The sublime Alexis Hudson carries the weight and burden of Brutus' ill-fated decision on her shoulders and in her gait, and compulsively rubs her hands together as if to wipe away his evil deed. She gives a spare and subtle performance, conveying grief and regret through her expressive eyes.
The envious and conniving conspirator Cassius is brought into crisp focus with the terrific Alexandra Ralph in the part, giving a wickedly clipped delivery that matches her movement and a steely gaze that cuts as sharply as her dagger. And the charismatic Breanna McCallum is a revelation as Caesar's strongest supporter and promoter Mark Antony, who takes us on an emotional journey through grief with his masterful, perfectly paced "Lend me your ears" funeral speech.
As conspirator Casca, Isabella Rooks gives a chilling, viciously funny turn; Gabrielle Silveroli provides a balanced presence as conspirator Cimber; Christina Harvey lends much needed comic relief as Lucius; and Ruliko Cronin, Sarah Rice, and Tiana LeShay Jones acquit themselves nicely switching between multiple roles including Calpurnia, Portia, and Ligarius respectively, though sometimes it's hard to keep straight who is who.
Katie Dennis' aesthetic costume design puts actresses in pantsuits like the type an assertive young Katherine Hepburn might have worn (though Caesar's bustier was problematic on opening night), and the second act, black battle clothes with high-waisted culottes, tanks, and combat boots (which resemble old-style boxing duds) are a smart choice for bad-ass warriors to wear. Whether intentional or not, the actresses become subtly more masculine in their movement during the second half of the show, and kudos to fight choreographer Brandon Dawson for all the individual, intricate battle scenes composed into one big whole.
Jesse L. Soper's ethereal scenic design uses diaphanous white ribbons to suggest Roman columns atop the steps of the Senate, and also the sun and its rays casting shadows over it all, while John Wampler's lighting design often uses the ribbons as a colorful palette. Rounding it out is Kaliah Silva's atmospheric and tribal sound design, giving the roar of a stormy night to match the evil that churns onstage.
NCT's compelling, all-female version of "Julius Caesar" proves Shakespeare will never go out of style.
Runs through March 25th. For tickets call 702-895-ARTS (2787).
Photo by: Richard Brusky