(Kentucky Shakespeare Festival presents “Julius Caesar” in Central Park through July 13. Directed by Pamela DiPasquale. For more info, go to www.kyshakes.org.)
The idea of reinventing William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as a story of samurai warriors sounds almost preposterous; one might hastily dismiss it as gimmick. And yet, director Pamela DiPasquale not only pulls it off but is genuinely touched by genius in her artistic vision. “Genius” is a word not to be invoked lightly, and that such a powerful production is available to the public for free in a “Shakespeare in the Park” setting makes it all the more amazing.
Despite the set, props and costumes all belonging to the era of Japanese feudal lords, no alterations were made to the Bard’s script. References to Rome and the Roman Empire period remain intact. The cognitive dissonance created by juxtaposing these two wildly different cultures and historical periods just underscores the universality of the story of Julius Caesar — a story of betrayal, power, ego and politics — that is every bit as relevant in our own time and society. Presenting the story in this symbolic way leaves it open to multiple interpretations, just as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film “Rashomon” does. A conspiracy theorist might impute that one should pay attention to doomsayers. And a discussion of the feminist and homosexual undercurrents would fill a book.
It certainly helps that the ancient Japanese culture is far more visually engaging than the ancient Roman Empire. The elegant black, red and gold samurai and ninja costumes draw the eye to the actors. The primal colors arouse archetypal memories of wars long past and ancient struggles in a harsh environment. The pounding of taiko drums awakens distant memories of our ancestors lurking in our reptilian brain — a primitive yet sophisticated rhythm accompanied by the Zen-like sounds of a Japanese shakuhachi flute. The ghostly moans will chill you even on a hot night, and the fight scenes are exhilaratingly depicted by this agile cast. Weaving elements of Kabuki and Noh into the mix makes for a rich aesthetic experience unlike any other “Julius Caesar” you’ve seen and are likely to see again.
Doubling up parts in casting can be an annoyance, but not so here. Absolutely nothing was lost having the production’s many parts played by a small ensemble (Carney Gray plays no less than six characters!), and it lends a suitable Japanese sparseness, simplicity and functionality to the proceedings.
Brian Hinds is a perfect Caesar — an authoritarian ruler, yet also human and charismatic enough that we sympathize completely with his situation. David Bianco, as Caesar’s right-hand man Mark Antony, has a Bobby Kennedy oratory quality, which is all the more ironic considering the plot. But it’s Dathan Hooper (Brutus) and Dmetrius Conley-Williams (Cassius) who make this show. From the moment the honorable conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, open their mouths to speak their first lines, you are hanging on every word, compelled by the performance. They actually make you forget you’re in a city park with traffic noise and train whistles in the distance, and that’s some feat.
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