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Abridge Too Far: The Justice Theater Project Murders Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

The Justice Theatre Project will present a community-theater production of "Julius Caesar" on Feb. 15-17 and 22-24 in Clare Hall at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh

The Justice Theatre Project will present a community-theater production of “Julius Caesar” on Feb. 15-17 and 22-24 in Clare Hall at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh

William Shakespeare’s plays may be Public Domain, and therefore FREE to produce — and ruthlessly abridge — without paying royalties; but they are deceptively difficult to stage successfully. Not many community theaters in the Triangle or elsewhere have the capability to pull it off or a talent pool deep enough to communicate the power and poetry in the dialogue of the Immortal Bard’s timeless tragedies. Sadly, such is the case with The Justice Theater Project’s current ill-conceived and at times horribly miscast presentation of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which was penned in approximately 1599 in England, at a time when the end of the 40-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I was imminent and her failure to appoint a successor raised the very real threat of Civil War.

Shakespeare was not unaware of the havoc that puffed-up military commanders could wreak when they decided to seize power from civilian authorities. The assassins of Roman general and politician Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) claimed that he had ambition to burn and was about to make himself king and do away with the cherished Roman Republic (509-27 BC), which was run by the Senate.

But in the abridgement employed in the current JTP modern-dress production of Julius Caesar, under the direction of David Henderson, Caesar is played by the genial and grandfatherly and terribly miscast John Honeycutt, a fine actor and a sweet man who portrays the title character like a typical glad-handing politico — think former President Ronald Reagan at his most avuncular — without demonstrating that Caesar has the fire in his belly to depose the Senate and install himself as sole ruler of the Rome and its burgeoning empire. Indeed, it is impossible to the average viewer to see how Honeycutt’s Caesar has got his assassins’ panties in a wad.

Moreover, at the end of Act I, when the Ides of March 44 BC has come, and these self-appointed “patriots” carve up Caesar — in an unnecessarily graphic manner, with blood bags spurting and splashing the stage with crimson — JTP transforms Julius Caesar from a Grade A drama of political intrigue into a Grade Z slasher film. Act II commences with the famous funeral oration of Marc Antony (delivered with passion by Jade Arnold), but soon disintegrates into a series of chaotic and ultimately unintelligible battle scenes — mostly viewed from the behind-the-lines headquarters of Cassius (the miscast Jeremy Fiebig, who may have had that “lean and hungry look” about 40 to 50 lbs. ago, but now more resembles yours truly than Cassius) and Marcus Brutus (an ineffectual Brian Fisher, who never says or does anything in this JTP production to justify Marc Antony’s surprising end-of-play characterization of Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all”).

Director David Henderson’s misguided decision to transform Caesar’s barren third wife Calpurnia into a smoking-hot babe flashing smoldering come-hither looks at the general’s associates is another misstep, although Katie Anderson sizzles in that role. Funnyman Mike Raab is wasted as Casca, but George Kaiser and Michelle Johnson make nice impressions as Caesar’s ultimate successor Octavius and Brutus’ fearful wife Portia.

The saddest thing about the current Justice Theater Project presentation of Julius Caesar is that newbies to the works of celebrated Elizabethan poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) will wonder what all the fuss is about. I hope that in the words of the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, JTP brushes up their Shakespeare before tackling one of the Bard’s plays in a future season.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 14th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 2 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/justice-theater-projects-julius-caesar/Content?oid=3291442.

The Justice Theatre Project presents JULIUS CAESAR at 8 p.m. Feb. 16, 2 p.m. Feb. 17, 8 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23, and 2 p.m. Feb. 24 in Clare Hall at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi, 11401 Leesville Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27613.

TICKETS: $20 ($15 students and seniors), except $12 per person for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-264-7089, marketing@thejusticetheaterproject.org, or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW/SEASON: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/Productions.html.

LIST OF RELATED EVENTS: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/Productions.html.

PRESENTER: : http://thejusticetheaterproject.org/.

BLOG: http://whatwouldjuliusdo.blogspot.com/.

VENUE/DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.etix.com/.

OTHER LINKS:

Julius Caesar (background): http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/plays/JC.html (Internet Shakespeare Editions) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2263 (Project Gutenberg).

Study Guides: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/upload/Julius%20Caesar%202013%20Education%20Action%20Guide.pdf (The Justice Theatre Project) and http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/Julius/caesar.html (Utah Shakespeare Festival).

William Shakespeare: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).

David Henderson: https://www.facebook.com/theatrescot (Facebook).

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar (Wikipedia).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Review, a FREE weekly e-mail arts newsletter. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Reviews

24 Responses

  1. Criticizing an actor’s performance based on their weight is pretty reprehensible.

  2. You didn’t like that a guy was fat? That’s the equivalent of saying someone was miscast because they were black or had a vagina. Or me saying you can’t write because you’re a bigot.

    Have you no sense of irony? Are you capable of evaluating a show on the value of its production choices rather than on the values you want to ascribe to it?

    Get out of the business. Hurry.

  3. I’ve spent the last month playing Portia in “Julius Caesar” and am genuinely perplexed by the unfavorable press that this well-spoken, thoughtfully-cast production is receiving. I hold my BFA in Acting and was consistently impressed by the emotional range shown by my fellow “JC” actors. A strong writer and unbiased reviewer would have looked “outside the box” of mere physicality when critiquing this production, knowing that good theater has little to do with actors being overweight, underweight, attractive or unattractive. What matters is the quintessential story and an actor’s ability to convey it effectively. In that respect, David Henderson’s cast succeeds admirably. My fellow actors (many of whom have their BFAs and MFAs in Theater) displayed a range of depth and emotion throughout this process which should have earned them, at the very least, a review without superficial—and frankly disrespectful—aspersions to their appearances . Perhaps it merely takes the combination of a trained eye and an open mind to see that such outward judgments are irrelevant. I strongly urge anyone reading negative reviews about this production to go into “Julius Caesar” as I did: unbiased and receptive, ready to enjoy a classic piece of literature performed by diligent, wholly-capable professionals. I guarantee, it will be a fascinating journey for those willing to see what good theatre REALLY “looks” like.

  4. You do know that the play isn’t supposed to be an historically accurate account of the Caesar assassination, right? Shakespeare’s own company did the show in modern dress…

  5. “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
    Eleanor Roosevelt

    You discuss a lot of people in this review.

  6. It is true that Julius Caesar refers to Cassius as having a “lean and hungry look.” What this reviewer failed to grasp is that Caesar means that Cassius looks dangerously dissatisfied, as if he were starved for power. To take the line as being a literal description of the character’s physical traits calls into question the reviewer’s qualifications to review this work.

  7. I’m just going to point out everything in your review which is embarrassing. Forgive me, but my comment is very long.

    “William Shakespeare’s plays may be Public Domain, and therefore FREE to produce — and ruthlessly abridge — without paying royalties; but they are deceptively difficult to stage successfully.”

    – Hmm, sounds like you’re an expert at it then. Nice use of caps lock. A pompous way to start a review, but let’s battle on…

    “Not many community theaters in the Triangle or elsewhere have the capability to pull it off or a talent pool deep enough to communicate the power and poetry in the dialogue of the Immortal Bard’s timeless tragedies. ”

    – Right… so unless it’s RSC doing a production then there’s no point bothering? And who honestly refers to Shakespeare as “Immortal Bard” in a conversation? Did you steal that from Isaac Asimov to sound clever? Congratulations on sounding way too obnoxious in that sentence.

    “Sadly, such is the case with The Justice Theater Project’s current ill-conceived and at times horribly miscast presentation of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which was penned in approximately 1599 in England, at a time when the end of the 40-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I was imminent and her failure to appoint a successor raised the very real threat of Civil War.”

    – Okay so you think it’s miscast. That’s fine… but no-one is impressed by your use of Wikipedia here. I’m still waiting for your History of England and Her Literature essay to turn into an actual review.

    “Shakespeare was not unaware of the havoc that puffed-up military commanders could wreak when they decided to seize power from civilian authorities. The assassins of Roman general and politician Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) claimed that he had ambition to burn and was about to make himself king and do away with the cherished Roman Republic (509-27 BC), which was run by the Senate.”

    – Okay, more Wikipedia filling. I guess I’ll have to wait another paragraph for your review to begin then. Thank you for the copy and pasted dates of births and deaths, we love that in a theatrical review. They really are very relevant.

    “Moreover, at the end of Act I, when the Ides of March 44 BC has come, and these self-appointed “patriots” carve up Caesar — in an unnecessarily graphic manner, with blood bags spurting and splashing the stage with crimson — JTP transforms Julius Caesar from a Grade A drama of political intrigue into a Grade Z slasher film.”

    — Frankly, this is ridiculous. When someone gets stabbed, there’s a lot of blood. Historical texts for the time of JC suggest he was stabbed 23 times. Don’t know if you realise, but that means there is going to be a lot of blood. In Elizabethan times (which you seem so interested in) the productions used copious amounts of blood, mainly pigs blood. There was literally buckets of the stuff backstage and it had to be fresh enough to not congeal. Comparing a realistic blood representation of a stabbing within a Shakespeare play to a “Grade Z slasher film” is infantile and petty.

    “Cassius (the miscast Jeremy Fiebig, who may have had that “lean and hungry look” about 40 to 50 lbs. ago, but now more resembles yours truly than Cassius)”

    — Wow, Robert. Did you really just go there? I bet when you wrote that you thought you were being really funny with that bitchy little comment. Last time I looked, fatism wasn’t exactly a plus point for a theatre reviewer. Also, you’re little gibe shows just how little you know about Shakespeare. That line continues “He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous” meaning that Cassius has a look of someone who is not looking after himself and may be a plotter. You were probably too busy being fixated on the actors appearance to fully understand the meaning behind this line. And if you did understand it, shame on you for such a hit below the waist.

    “and Marcus Brutus (an ineffectual Brian Fisher, who never says or does anything in this JTP production to justify Marc Antony’s surprising end-of-play characterization of Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all”).”

    —- Ew. Just because a character thinks something of another character, doesn’t mean that it’s true. This is plain lazy. I can’t be bothered to get into a debate about the varied interpretation of whether or not Brutus is a noble Roman or not, because there’s a case for both sides here and it depends on the interpretation of the actor and the production. I’ve seen many productions where I wasn’t convinced of Brutus being noble…or of him not being noble. Your comment is too simplistic to be fair, and suggests you’d rather blame an actor than think for yourself.

    “Director David Henderson’s misguided decision to transform Caesar’s barren third wife Calpurnia into a smoking-hot babe flashing smoldering come-hither looks at the general’s associates is another misstep, although Katie Anderson sizzles in that role.”

    — What is it about the use of “smoking-hot babe” here that made me uncomfortable reading this? And the use of “sizzles”. It honestly sounds a bit creepy.

    “The saddest thing about the current Justice Theater Project presentation of Julius Caesar is that newbies to the works of celebrated Elizabethan poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) will wonder what all the fuss is about.”

    —- The saddest thing about this review is that you don’t consider yourself to be a “newbie”. Thank you again for letting us know Shakespeare’s birth and death years. Maybe you could have provided the actual dates (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) for full irrelevant effect, you know Wikipedia has it right there.

    “I hope that in the words of the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, JTP brushes up their Shakespeare before tackling one of the Bard’s plays in a future season.”

    —- Yeah, you’re right. You really should stick to musicals.

  8. The use of theatrical blood is documented 400 years prior to the actual stabbing of Caius Julius Caesar.

  9. Calling someone out for being fat is inappropriate.

    I actually agree that the lines should have been either altered or played differently. Those lines should have been played for ironic or sarcastic effect, but they weren’t (or if they were intended to be so the intent of the actors wasn’t clear in the performance I saw). That created an odd moment for the audience because the words did not match the action of the play.

    Yes, of course Caesar is using Cassius’ appearance as a metaphor for his “hunger” for power. But the plain reading of the text is that he is also talking about Cassius’ appearance. Here is the relevant section in full:

    CAESAR
    Let me have men about me that are fat;
    Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
    Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
    He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
    ANTONY
    Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
    He is a noble Roman and well given.
    CAESAR
    Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
    Yet if my name were liable to fear,
    I do not know the man I should avoid
    So soon as that spare Cassius.

    He is contrasting the “spare” “lean” Cassius’ to “men that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights.” The suggestion is that the fat men don’t sit up all night thinking as the thin Cassius does. It suggests that Cassius is thin BECAUSE he is hungry for power. The failure to address this disconnect, either by altering the lines or their delivery was a mistake. But it was a mistake of the director, not a mistake in casting.

    Criticizing the ACTOR because he “doesn’t look like Cassius” is poor criticism and poor writing. It’s a cheap shot. Criticize him for a poor acting performance if you like, but not his appearance.

  10. Nah, you don’t have to alter a line to fit an actors appearance and according to this reviewer, he doesn’t think Shakespeare should be “ruthlessly abridge(d)” anyway. I think looking deeper into the text somehow almost justifies the nasty review.

    It was completely unforgivable for Robert W. McDowell to attack an actor for his physical appearance in this way. It’s nothing short of bullying and it shouldn’t be tolerated. I think the real mistake is in the way this reviewer has conducted himself.

    Why not just assume Cassius normally looks healthier and bigger than he does when Caesar makes this observation. Why is there an assumption that there is a right and a wrong way to deal with this because it’s a Shakespeare play? I’m always cautious of people putting these works on a pedestal because then we loose a freedom to open our eyes and make them relevant for today. Richard III’s deformities aren’t always physical, Othello isn’t always black, Hermia is sometimes taller than Helena. It’s okay to experiment!

    I saw a production where Caesar was an African dictator and that was brilliant. I saw an all female production of this set in a prison and it was brilliant. It was also abridged a good deal (SACRILEGE! haha) There isn’t one way to interpret the text.

    This is a show that a lot of people are enjoying and that’s what counts. I think there’s been too much emphasis on a minor detail.

  11. Oh, I absolutely agree that the work shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, and there isn’t a “right” way to cast any show.

    You do have to make it work though. What’s wrong is when a production hits a false note. I (speaking only for myself) thought “why did he say that?” Caesar’s line just didn’t make sense to my ears in performance. You could change the text, you could change the motivation of the line. Maybe it’s comic nonesense (think about how they call Tina the llama fat in Napoleon Dynamite for instance). You can do whatever you want. But the way these lines were delivered in this play was very straight. It seemed like no choice had been made about it at all. “We’ll all just ignore this and keep going” seemed to be what was happening, but that doesn’t happen in real life! It shouldn’t happen on stage. It played false.

    I’ll note that I’ve seen women play men’s roles quite well (and the reverse), and often with no alteration of the text at all. But in that production it was clear that “these women are playing men in the world of the play.” In the world of the play everyone treated the actors as if they were who they presented. Communication between the actors and the audience was clear. It simply wasn’t clear what was going on in this instance though. Did all the other characters perceive Cassius as thin so Caesar’s line makes sense to them? Was Caesar going senile? Was it a joke? What is going on? And whatever choice you make, if you can’t clearly communicate that choice to the audience, it’s not going to work. Making a definite decision and being clear in performance is important in any theatrical production.

    None of this is to defend or justify the snide original statement. As I said at the beginning and end of the previous post, attacking an actor’s physical appearance is just not acceptable. And I repeat it again. It is NOT ACCEPTABLE, and I hope Mr. McDowell understands that. Performance, sure. Direction, sure, but appearance (and this is not the first time he has done this in a review)? That’s just not ok.

    You are right that too much attention is paid to this minor detail already.

  12. The author of this hit piece actually had the gall to seek my permission to “debate” the topic!

    What is there to “debate”?

    Asking for a simple public apology is apparently a “bridge too far” for this “reviewer”…

  13. Shakespeare’s “fat” isn’t the same as our fat. Ours always means overweight, but Shakespeare’s has meant loads of different things besides just that.

    For example : content, jovial, relaxed, wise, fertile, productive, satisfied, slow, hefty, substantial, full-bodied, rich, privileged and dull. Basically men who are very unlikely to usurp!

    So what if the line was delivered straight? It’s meaning is straight. This is another reason why Mr McDowell’s comments are so offensive. He’s taken a limited interpretation of the text and used it to needlessly fling mud at a performer because of his appearance. Horrible.

  14. It is amazing that nobody is commenting on the positive comments that Mr. McDowell left.
    He also praised four actors. Jade, George, Michelle, and Mike.
    We are all too sensitive when it comes to what we perceive as an insult.
    We all know that David Henderson is an outstanding director, and that the play was enjoyed by many.
    Let’s not focus on a critical opinion which is only an OPINION.
    (The writer also included himself as being a husky man. )
    We need to learn something from all this. Or at least not get too offended when we don’t like what we hear.

  15. @DDK. Perhaps you’re right. But some cake that’s covered in poo is still inedible.

    What if one of the only reasons the reviewer liked those people mentioned is that they weren’t fat? Wouldn’t that be dumb?

    Answer: yes.

  16. Wow- it’s amazing and a little puzzling to see these reactions to this review. For a few reasons:
    1. This show has not been well received critically, while they did find some good things to say, almost all reviewers across the board came away with less than rave reviews for this production.
    2. No one has commented on those other reviews with the kind of vitriol expressed here- there are exactly zero comments challenging Byron Woods 2 star review at the Indy.
    3. No one likes to get negative reviews on their work, but as an actor this happens all the time, sometimes legit, other times unfounded, take the good with the bad and keep it in perspective.
    If you’re proud of your work that is what matters and I hope that you guys have a great final weekend.

  17. So ready to move on, but Henriette’s post deserves an answer.

    Byron Woods with the Indy did not belittle an actor’s size as Robert McDowell did. If you go through and read the responses left here, they are almost all to do with one specific aspect of McDowell’s review. Many felt McDowell made an unfair and unjustified attack on one actor’s physical appearance, claiming that his size made him unsuitable for playing the role of Cassius. (It wasn’t even done with tact, but instead made the actor the butt of a joke – or at least that is how it was interpreted by this writer.) The lack of comment on the actor’s performance and focus instead on the actor’s size struck many of us who support the notion of non-traditional casting, to be a shocking and negative choice by this reviewer.

    The comments posted here are not about a “bad” review, which as has also been pointed out, was not all “bad”. Bad reviews come with the territory. However, the lack of comments about the Indy review would lend weight to the notion that there was a line crossed by McDowell that Woods didn’t cross.

    What I find to be sad is that the decision to write off all of the many hours or work and preparation that this actor put into the role was written off without any comment, other than he was 50 lbs. too heavy for the role. Wow! That is just so unnecessary, rude, and insulting.

    It also feeds into the minds of actors, directors, producers and audience members the message that non-traditional casting isn’t worth the trouble, and it is far better to play it safe in casting choices.

  18. Hear hear Matthew!

    That is spot on. It’s fine to criticize performance. It’s fine to criticize direction. It’s fine to criticize acting choices. No one argues with a bad review because it’s negative. Negative reviews are as important as positive reviews. I certainly don’t want reviewers to produce nothing but glowing praise, that would be pretty useless. But a cheap joke directed at an actor’s physical appearance really is not helpful to anyone, and it does harm to the theatre community by discouraging non-traditional casting.

    I want to see the best performances possible. And if that means a mixed race family in an drawing room comedy or a female Hamlet that’s fine. Naturally non-traditional casting can present some special performance questions that need to be addressed intelligently (and clearly I think they could have been better addressed in this production) but they should be embraced not avoided. When one dings a production for the appearance of the performers rather than the manner that they perform or the way they were directed, a disservice is done to everyone by discouraging companies to take risks.

  19. There were a number of posts that took issue with other things in the review, which is what I focused on.
    I agree though that Robert’s comment about the actor is certainly a hot button!
    And perhaps it was insensitive- or just didn’t need to be said- I will also give you that.
    But let’s be clear about differences in non-traditional casting, and casting that cannot be supported in the text. Casting different races or sexes in pieces should always be explored and embraced and hopefully almost a non issue. However, if you have a superb actor that is six foot four playing the role of Tiny Tim, that would certainly merit a comment by a reviewer- as a casting choice.

  20. It is terrific to see so many people reviewing the reviewer; but instead of responding to these Comments piecemeal, I have published my apology to Jeremy Fiebig for putting him in the middle of this controversy, and added all of MY comments here: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/02/readers-go-ballistic-over-julius-caesar-review/.

    My offer still stands. If you want me to publish your remarks in the newsletter VERBATIM as a Letter to the Editor, just e-mail me at RobertM748@aol.com and include your REAL NAME and tell me whether you have any CONNECTION to this production. I’ll publish what you say, and let the newsletter’s and website’s readers decide who’s right and who’s wrong about the many issues raised above.

  21. I’m amazed by all the vitriol heaped on this reviewer, seemingly for one questionable remark—which was more a joke at his own expense than anything else. I’m also puzzled as to why someone would feel strongly enough to dissect this review line by line, mocking every sentence with sarcasm, but then post their critique under an anonymous screen name. And anyone who reads Robert McDowell’s reviews regularly knows that his research and critical study go far beyond Wikipedia, as a quick glance at the links and references accompanying any of his pieces demonstrates.

  22. Like Ms. Fineman, above, I too am taken aback by all of the venom expressed by those overly-sensitive souls who have responded to one man’s critique. Taken aback, but not surprised. I see it more and more often. Take it from someone who lives in a communtity with no reviewers of record: quit belly-aching and thank your lucky stars that someone cares enough to write about you, for good or evil. We’ve longed for the local press to review our shows for many years with no results, and miss it so much that we began to review EACH OTHER’s preformances on Facebook! Yes! It’s true. And we call each other out with far more directness than a poke at someone’s belly jelly. It’s not been easy, but we’re learning to take deep cleansing breaths, and I suggest you give it a try, too. We have learned, however, than there are always those who can’t take any criticism at all, and these folks are both a bane and a pain in the creative last word.

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