Much has been made in the past few weeks about the peaceful transfer of power – one presidential administration handed off to another without bloodshed – being the crowning achievements of U.S. democracy. Those needing to be convinced of the virtues of that need look no further than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a dramatic tale of the most shocking of coups, currently playing at Humboldt State’s Van Duzer Theatre.

The play centers on the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C.E. by members of his own senate. The background is that Caesar himself had seized power by deposing an elected ruler, Pompey, setting himself up as dictator in perpetuity. So popular was Caesar with the Romans that Shakespeare opines (though Casca) of the people that they, “forgave him with all their hearts … if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” He too “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose voters. HSU’s Department of Theatre, Film and Dance would be hard pressed to find a more apt time for staging this play.

Julius Caesar is a sprawling drama, with over 40 named characters and a lot of backstory. Director Calder Johnson, a veteran of many a Shakespeare production, wisely chose to present a tighter version, running about two hours, with two dozen characters – still an ambitious project for a smaller production. His cast is young and energetic, and on opening night delivered a performance more passionate than nuanced, hitting all the high points while galloping (and occasionally mumbling) through voluminous amounts of dialogue. While the ensemble was somewhat static in the first half, the group more than made up for it in the second, with a fight scene that covered the breadth of the Van Duzer stage. Fight Choreographer Caroline McFarland and Master of Arms Samuel Monahan trained the cast well, and no one got hurt.

The imposing yet simple set, designed by Derek Lane, features faux stone columns and stairs, evoking the Roman senate and the palatial homes of the principals, and with broken columns, the battlefield of the second half. Its neoclassical aesthetic is somewhat at odds with the costume design, as Isabella “Izzy” Ceja chose to dress everyone in ’80s New Romantics period costume – think Human League does the Bard or, in a more contemporary reference, Shakespeare as performed by the citizens of the Capitol of Panem. 

Smart color choices in the first half clearly delineated conspirators from Caesar’s supporters and from ordinary Romans, but that distinction vanished in the second half, when a sudden costume change found both sides in hipster-infused military drab, leaving the audience to rely on the rather fantastical hairstyles, designed by Delaney McNeill, to keep track of who’s who.

HSU’s production of Julius Caesar is an ambitious project with a lot of verve and style, but not a lot of breathing room. If you’re unfamiliar with the play, you may want to read up a little before jumping into the action. It runs at HSU Thursday to Saturday, March 9 to 11 at 7:30 p.m. – don’t wait for the Ides of March, for by then it will be too late.


Lauraine Leblanc is scene editor of the Mad River UnionSubscribe here.