BLOOMSBURG - It's an election year and politics are in the air. Everywhere you turn: politicians, debates, polls, scandal, rhetoric, punditry. And so it seems like a particularly appropriate time to take in one of the greatest political dramas ever staged.
The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble will present "Julius Caesar" at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and 28 at the Alvina Krause Theatre, 226 Center St. The play is directed by James Goode, who has been a member of the BTE since its founding in 1978.
"Julius Caesar" is one of Shakespeare's Roman plays, but Goode said his production's costumes and scenery have been updated to reflect a 19th century setting.
The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble will present “Julius Caesar” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and 28 at the Alvina Krause Theatre, 226 Center St.
"The costumes are going to be mid-19th century," Goode said. "I didn't want to do something modern because that gets overused and then you expect to see a lot of guns in the battle scenes. This is a world where people use daggers."
The dagger is crucial to the assassination of Caesar, a scene which led Goode to an interesting coincidence.
"I started thinking about what assassination means to us in America and, of course, one of the first things that pops into your head is Lincoln. As it happened, 'Julius Caesar' was a very popular play in America during the 19th century," he said. "The Booth brothers were famous for their portrayals of Caesar, Brutus and Antony. Of course, one of them assassinated Lincoln."
Goode went on to discover other resonances which seemed to justify his decision to set the play in the 19th century.
"I began to wonder why this play was so popular during that time," Goode said. "Then I realized it speaks a lot about what it means to be a citizen, what tyranny means, what liberty means. This was also an era when men and women were still motivated by honor and that's a big part of the play. No matter what you think of Robert E. Lee, he was motivated by honor. So it was kind of a mirror to our own republic at the time."
At its core, the play deals with Rome's transition from republic to empire.
"In that transition, Julius Caesar was assuming a lot of power and authority and the senators who want to keep Rome a republic, assassinate him," Goode said. "This brings about civil war and the senators who were complicit in the assassination lose the war, resulting in the beginnings of empire. That's a big overview. What Shakespeare really did, though, was focus on these vibrant personalities of the time: Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony. He's able to tell this story through these characters.
"In this play, you get to understand personality in political situations. Looking at the Republican primaries happening now, a lot of it comes down to can this person express himself in a way that has meaning to me," he continued. "It would be very different if we just read what their positions were and voted on a written statement, but that's not how politics works. So much of politics is about people. Those that can make a connection to their audience stand a chance of winning. It's about personality."
This production of "Julius Caesar" is part of the Shakespeare in American Communities grant, which has been awarded to the BTE for the past three years.
"This is a program for Shakespeare outreach for high school students in particular," Goode said. "We're one of 36 theaters to receive the grant nation-wide. A very important part of the grant is having students from a minimum of 10 high schools see the show and also doing workshops with them."
After the two performances at the Alvina Krause Theatre, the company will take its show on the road, performing at high schools throughout the region. The fact that this is a touring production means that Goode had to adapt the play to meet certain requirements.
"The setting is very simplified. All the scenery and props have to pack down and fit very efficiently in a U-Haul," Goode said. "We only have a cast of eight, so I've had to cut things down, combine characters and get rid of some senators, which I'm sorry to have to do. We've cut the play down to 70 minutes so that it fits in the space of two class periods."
Goode said his decision to abridge the play was inspired by the primary aim of the Shakespeare in American Communities grant: to win students over to Shakespeare's work and make it accessible to them. Goode talked about the BTE's own unique methods for meeting this goal.
"Sometimes, when students read Shakespeare, it can seem archaic and old-fashioned. But when it's acted and well-spoken, you don't have that hurdle," he said. "I think that's been a hallmark of the Shakespeare we've done. Our student audiences have said, 'I can understand what's going on now that I hear it.' In a broad way, reading Shakespeare is like reading the lyrics of a song that you don't know: the words themselves may not communicate the emotion. The lyrics might mention love, but you don't know what kind of love or how deep the love is. But when you know the music that goes with the lyrics, that opens up a whole understanding that words alone can't. With actors who have training and experience with Shakespeare, we know how to bring out the music of the verse so that the emotional meaning can come across in a way that it's hard for students to read on the page."
Goode has directed and acted in other Shakespeare productions at the BTE, including "Much Ado About Nothing," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Hamlet." Based on his experience of past productions, Goode said the BTE audience responds very well to Shakespeare.
"Shakespeare does very well for us. Last year, when we did 'Macbeth,' we had only two performances and people were a little disappointed. There's already been a lot of buzz about 'Caesar' because we haven't done it yet and because it's a play that people remember reading in high school, so they're interested to see our take on it."
For tickets to "Julius Caesar" and more information about the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, visit www.bte.org.