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Et tu, CU?

Theatre Buffs update Roman tragedy into corporate power play

By Leigh E. Rich

For most students, not only has Julius Caesar been stabbed 33 times, he’s been beaten to death.

But fear not, all you who managed to survive the carnage of sophomore-year English, and hold onto your dramatis personae—the UCD Theatre Buffs’ rendition of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy ain’t the Caesar you suffered through in high school. Set in modern-day America and in the skyscraper offices of Rome, Inc., this Caesar is a corporate power play about the ambitions of “climber-upwards” and the inner-workings of big business.

It is also the last hurrah of director Neil Truglio, a last-semester senior at UCD and currently the president of the Theatre Buffs—a student organization forged a few years ago.

But while the corporate Caesar could be no more relevant in this, our post-Enron age, Truglio’s idea to update the tale of the Roman CEO has been in development for some time now. Inspired by Shakespeare’s own words—Portia’s gripe to her workaholic husband, Brutus, “Dwell I but in the suburbs / Of your good pleasure?” and Cassius’ cry of “Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement”—Truglio was never quite content with his high school teacher’s interpretation that “Antony was the good guy and Brutus was the bad guy. I just didn’t buy it.

“Different times in your life, different things strike you,” says Truglio, who’s “always been fascinated with Caesar (because) the line between the good guy and the bad guy is so hazy.”

Unlike Iago in Othello or Claudius in Hamlet, Caesar’s Brutus—in this production adeptly played by Mark Sharp—slays his best friend ostensibly for the good of Rome. “The tragic hero is Brutus,” explains Truglio. “He is the tragic hero according to Aristotle. So how can he be the bad guy? (For those who conspire to kill Caesar,) it’s all about personal gain, except maybe for Brutus. He acts for Rome.”

Rome at the time, of course, was a republic and seemingly all Brutus was trying to do was safeguard the Senate-house from crowning Caesar king following his defeat of Pompey in a civil war. Reacting to the ambitious Caesar, whose proclamation to “Let me have men about me that are fat, / Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights” sounds all-too-familiar in today’s executive-heavy companies, Brutus plots not because he “lov’d / Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more.”

On the other hand, Caius Cassius—the mastermind of the conspiracy against Caesar—“is a mixed message,” says Truglio, whose fascination with the character is delightfully evident in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. In Truglio’s version, Cassius is Rome, Inc.’s chief legal counsel … and a woman.

Dressed to the 9-to-5s in a blood-red power suit with a hemline most definitely above the knee—a theatrical touch that stands out among the other characters’ standard-issued corporate gray—Cassius convincingly emerges as a woman trapped by the glass ceiling of her environment, and her seduction of Brutus and the other co-conspirators to rise against Caesar takes on new meaning.

“Cassius had to be a woman,” Truglio says, and if he could only see the Buffs’ production of Caesar and the alluring performance of actress Julia Elizabeth Resetarits in the role, even Shakespeare might agree.

Redressed as a business relationship between colleagues who also happen to be man and woman, Brutus and Cassius are in bed together—and, with hints of sub-context in this version, perhaps literally as well.

The ramifications of this directorial choice reverberate elsewhere in the Buffs’ Caesar, as with the marital argument between Brutus and Portia, a well-to-do housewife who’s upset because her husband has stolen “out of his wholesome bed / To dare the vile contagion of the night”—be it for Rome, Inc., or Cassius, it’s difficult to say.

As Kaliea Devi Schutz’s headstrong Portia storms the high-rise office of her vice-president husband, once again burning the midnight oil, it is no wonder she questions whether she is for Brutus more than “To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed, / And talk to you sometimes? … If it be no more, / Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.” And her lament of being “so father’d and so husband’ed,” filtered through Truglio’s adaptation, makes Portia’s desperation and her suicide that much more understandable.

Besides Cassius, the characters of Cinna (Haley Johnson), Lepidus (Stephanie Ann Schmidt), and Lucius (Petra Pallos) are also overtaken by the fairer sex, and not only does such turnabout work, it’s long overdue. In Shakespeare’s day, male actors portrayed even the female roles, which were often limited for this reason. Truglio, always one step ahead, redefines Caesar’s wife as well.

Added to Shakespeare’s cast is a news anchor—a kind of narrative chorus like that in Henry V—who Truglio, with the help of Dominique Leavitt who decisively portrays Calphurnia, decided to extend to her role. It makes sense turning Caesar’s infertile wife into a hard-hitting career woman, Truglio says, because it’s an injustice to “let Calphurnia be the wife of Caesar and nothing else. This is a business family.”

And so we see another side to Calphurnia, who must “put business before family and report on her own husband’s death,” Truglio explains, during Mark Antony’s infamous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” scene.

What also reinvigorates the Buffs’ Caesar, in addition to the compelling performances of male actors Adam Romsdahl as Casca, Nick Ross as Antony, Josh Smith as Caesar as well as Brett Maughan’s Trebonius who—as Rome, Inc.’s stereotypical accountant—takes on the function of the play’s Shakespearean clown, is the production’s mixing of media, incorporating both live DJ music and live and recorded video with the theatrical action.

The stage itself, set tennis-court style in UCD’s black box theater, is framed by austere and traditional-looking Doric columns at one end and a pyramid of television sets at the other. Shakespearean dialogue becomes cell-phone conversation, the forum transforms into a conference room, and the downfall of the conspirators becomes a suspenseful noir film in which, from the play’s opening scene until the end, “no one leaves the office.”

And that’s the modern connection, so says Truglio: “It’s all about big business. … Theater finds a way to meet you halfway. It really is in the text. I didn’t push it in any way it didn’t want to go.”

For the audience, whether as the general public, stockholders in Rome, Inc., or half-forgotten spouses like Portia, we are but voyeurs catching a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day drudgery within this corporate takeover, and Truglio—with the help of a finely-tuned ensemble cast—is a modern-day Hamlet, an artist holding up the mirror to nature so that, as Cassius explains, we might see our own shadows.

And shadows we have. The ramifications of Caesar’s ambitions, a man who Cassius tells us smacks of a wolf because he “sees the Romans are but sheep,” are too readily apparent as the top execs at Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, and now Qwest remind us that “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power.”

But it is Cassius, whose character at times overshadows even Brutus in this all-too-timely version, sends home the real message: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.”

And that is the moral of the story for Truglio, who also directed previous Buffs’ productions The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail and Of Mice and Men. Julius Caesar is a reminder of “how delicate life is. All my plays seem to be about the choices we make and living with the repercussions. How do we then go on? How do we handle what happens next?

“Business goes on. Even after the death of Caesar”—whether he was murdered in the forum or in the boardroom—“business goes on.”

Perhaps it’s all just shades of corporate gray.

Regardless, the Buffs’ production proves once and for all that the most important things in life do, in fact, happen by the water cooler.

Rich, L. E. (2002, August 28). Et tu, CU? Theater Buffs update tragedy into corporate power play. CU-Denver Advocate.

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