In director Stephen Rockwell's re-imagining of Shakespeare's play, Anna C. Miller affirms that a woman can play Julius Caesar as compellingly as a man. However, much like Brutus' band of conspirators, Rockwell has overestimated the importance of Caesar's physical body: Destroy the body and we transform Rome; re-gender the body and we transform the play. Both assumptions prove false. And, given that Caesar dies in the beginning of Act III, Rockwell's experiment has less space to reflect on the state of women in power than a female casting of Brutus might afford.
Fortunately this director doesn't stake his whole production on the gender question, and he crafts a solid base from which to diverge. His staging is swift and ambitious (in the best sense), and the ensemble is impressive. If Rockwell's agenda and Shakespeare's text are occasionally at odds, it proves a minor distraction from a thoroughly entertaining sum.
Miller as Caesar and Kate McKiernan as her wife, Calphurnia, give powerful, nuanced performances, and, for the first two acts, they make Rockwell's unusual casting seem quite natural. After Caesar's death, however, the director seems to take up a battle of the sexes that isn't supported by the text. And the question of who will rise to power—a man or a woman—is given undue weight. Not surprisingly, Caesar's ghost returns in the guises of Pindarus and Strato to personally enact revenge on Cassius and Brutus. But McKiernan's reappearance as Octavius Caesar feels like cheating. When, in the final image, she raises a sword over her head in victory, with the old regime (Antony and Caesar's ghost) assembled beside her, there is a vague sense that director and audience have arrived at separate conclusions.
Rockwell's most striking references to our political present occur in conventionally cast characters. Christopher Gottschalk's Marcus Brutus—accomplished, earnest, and somewhat mechanical—is a ringer for Al Gore. Gottschalk draws the rise and fall of Brutus with moving restraint. Gabe Marin's Mark Antony—the reveler turned world leader, appealing to the populace with promised shares of Caesar's estate—suggests aspects of our current leader, though Marin is quite the orator. He goes for (and gets) the laughs in his central speech, and yet he remains pleasingly difficult to pin down. A volatile Caius Cassius, Darin Anthony is conniving and vulnerable by turns. Krishna Le Fan is a standout as Casca and does a hilarious turn as Lepidus, the weak link of the triumvirate. Other notable performances include Colleen Cavanaugh Anthony's regal Portia, and Daryl Dickerson's and Hampton Rowe's well-conceived servants and poets.
Katrin Kern dresses the actors in modern garb with a futuristic edge. Particularly inspired are Caesar's tailored outfits, Calphurnia's glamourous apparel, and Brutus' melancholy uniforms. Joshua Chesler provides an attractive, practical set. And Stephen Davis (lighting design), John Goetchius (music direction), and Kenneth R. Merckx Jr. (fight choreography) urge the motion of Rockwell's kinetic spectacle.
"Julius Caesar," presented by the Double Helix Theatre Company at the Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. July 14-Aug. 4. $16. (323) 243-4488.