CC2_1531.jpg: Lansing-based Sunsets with Shakespeare gives ‘Julius Caesar’ a 21st century twist beginning Aug. 9 at the Lou Adado Riverfront Park Sunbowl. Photo: Courtesy, SWS
Iraq. Rome. Bush. Caesar. Ask the average American what connection there might be between those words, and the answer will probably be a blank stare. Or “I dunno.” And that’s something Todd Heywood is hoping to change with his upcoming production of “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare.
“‘Julius Caesar’ was something we started looking at this past winter when we were looking at the whole debate about Iraq, and how there was sort of this blind patriotism going on,” explained Heywood, artistic director of Lansing-based Sunsets with Shakespeare. “And I think ‘Caesar’ addresses that.”
It’s that blind patriotism that Heywood believes caused Brutus to join the conspirators in murdering Caesar. “And from that you get to see how the country falls apart.”
Just staging the play and encouraging people to see it isn’t enough for Heywood, however; he also wants people to understand it. So to help facilitate that, the director is setting the play in modern times – a conceit many diehard Shakespeare experts vigorously reject. But that doesn’t faze Heywood whatsoever; in fact, he’s a big fan of including whatever symbols are needed to help modern-day audiences interpret the story. “I sincerely believe that when we put (actors) in period costumes, people say, ‘I had a hard time understanding it.’ But if you have that same (actor) come out in their everyday clothes and (deliver) the same lines, people understand it. There’s a mental block people (have) when somebody walks out (on stage) in pumpkin pants and tights. It (becomes) a foreign language, so they don’t work at it.”
Updating the play wasn’t particularly difficult, Heywood said. But he did so only after reading about 85 different books on Rome and Roman culture, plus numerous biographies of the play’s historical characters. “It was a lot of research, but that’s really the only way to make sure you translate the symbols properly.”
Guns and street clothes aren’t the only differences people will notice in Heywood’s “Caesar”: The role of Caius Cassius will be played by a woman, Lindsay Palinsky. “I think it’s important when you have strong women audition, that they be rewarded for being strong actors,” Heywood said. “So I’ve always been a big fan of ‘if you come in and wow me with an audition, and I can figure out a way to cast you in a lead role that’s traditionally done by a man, I’ll do it.’ And I had lots of strong women audition.”
So much so, that the director originally planned to have a woman play the role of Brutus, too. “So it would have had two women, and we were going to play a lesbian subtext.”
Unfortunately, the actress originally cast in the role had to drop out. “That would have been powerful storytelling.”
Ultimately, the director hopes audiences will leave the show pondering several questions. “Why are we in a war that is clearly not working, that we were clearly dragged into by false beggings to patriotism and why are we still standing here going, ‘It’s okay’?”
Plus, “They’re going to see some incredibly talented actors.”
Sunsets with Shakespeare at the Lou Adado Riverfront Park Sunbowl, located on the Rivertrail behind the City Market on the corner of Shiawassee and Cedar Street, Lansing. Thu.-Sun., Aug. 9-19. Tickets: Free; donations accepted. For more information: http://www.sunsetswithshakespeare.com.