Reviewed: A Distaff Julius Caesar, Still Dying by the Sword
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Lise Bruneau
Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to Oct. 23
Jessica Lefkow's Cassius—a lean and hungry-looking schemer indeed—and Esther Williamson's softer-spoken but steel-spined Brutus are the solid anchors of a Julius Caesar where even that saddle-sore swaggerer Marc Antony is played by an actor who's bound her breasts before tying on that toga. (Actually the default costume for the Senators in Taffety Punk's black-box version of Ancient Rome is vest and tie over cargo pants and combat boots; it's a kind of sartorial mullet—business up top and war-party from the hips down—the better to reinforce the idea that military prowess was part of the basic skill set among the ruling class in Caesar's city.)
The focus in Lise Bruneau's production tilts toward the intensity of that relationship between the two chief plotters, and Lefkow and Williamson make it a combustible thing—they're two proud, prickly aristocrats, the one a little more willing to game the system, though not without a keen sense of honor, the other as always just a bit too noble to survive in a world of compromisers.
As always with these rough-edged Riot Grrrls stagings, the actors' level of comfort with the play's language can vary, and some of the bigger confrontations can seem a little shouty. What comes through pointedly, of course, is the frequency with which Shakespeare's Romans divide themselves into strong and weak, action-takers and sideline-sitters, along stark gender lines. Portia's great speech plays vividly, but then it was always a Roman matron's outcry against the assumptions the men around her make. And when Lefkow's fierce and wiry Cassius complains, as Caesar consolidates his power in the early going, that "our yoke and sufferance show us womanish," it's a prick-up-your-ears moment: This isn't going to be your father's Julius Caesar, and good thing, too.