A love of history and of Shakespeare can be passed down through the generations. On a sunny day in October 1960, my dad gathered his kids around him on the ancient marble steps of the Roman Forum: “It was on this spot that Julius Caesar was stabbed by close pals of his.”
We learned about the final stab from Caesar’s best friend Brutus, “Et tu, Brute?” These words in Latin have become, down through the ages, the catchphrase for ultimate betrayal.
Thanks to my dad’s tutorial, I felt personally involved in the two-millennia-old tale of the murdered Man Who Would Be King: I’d stood on the steps where his blood had been shed. And Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” brisk and suspenseful, has kept the story alive through the ages. Now the Vineyard Playhouse brings it to us at the amphitheater in Tisbury.
The bard tosses in special effects as needed: A dark night of conspirators racing around the city? Whip up a thunderstorm with a supernatural fear factor. Brutus and Cassius engage in a heated debate? Cue the ghost of the slain Caesar, “I’ll meet you at Philippi!” he warns, hinting at how a single act of murder will lead to armies clashing in the night.
Every summer on our Island, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse stages an Elizabethan classic in this idyllic spot, under the trees and with sounds of chirping birds and squawking geese high overhead. And this summer, for “Julius,” a tale of raging testosterone, the cast is composed 100 percent of women. Playing men. And it works!
At the start of the action, we see the cast decked out in black. Would we be able to distinguish one from another? But each performer inhabited her part with such consummate personal [male] body language, it soon became a matter of instant recognition: Shelagh Hackett plays Caesar with the self-assurance of a man who’s proved his leadership skills. Amy Sabin Barrow is a brooding, elegant, Brutus. Chelsea McCarthy brings a swagger and bellow to “yon Cassius … such men are dangerous.” Anna Yukevich steps up with aplomb as Mark Antony to literally steal the scene with his stealth-attack funeral narration. Ellie Brelis has a transgendered op to perform both Brutus’ wife Portia and the future emperor Augustus, in the meantime hailed as Octavius, while Liz Michael Hartford and Emily Hewson bring esprit de corps to other big shots of ancient Rome.
And this brought me back to the fall of 1990 when my then-husband Marty, our 5-year-old son Charlie, and Oak Bluffs friends Injy and Lason Lew, with daughters Olivia and Isabelle, respectively 4 and 3, visited Rome together. Jason filmed it: I’ve got the toddlers crouched beside me at the bottom of the Senate steps as I explain, in a kindergarten teacher tone, how this fellow, Julius Caesar, was taken down in the most famous political assassination of them all.
As Cassius speculates: “How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/ In states unborn and accents yet unknown!”
Some highlights from the play: Ms. Hackett, like so many Julius performers around the United States at this time, including the controversial actor in NYC who flaunted a long red tie, brings a shade of Donald Trump bluster to the role. So many fabled quotes come from this single Shakespeare drama alone, such as, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” “Beware the Ides of March!” and “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
There’s an ease with which the players ignore the occasional jet overhead on its summer flight plan to the airport. Director Brooke Hardman Ditchfield provides a polish to the whole production and, at the end, lines up her actors to sing a celestial hymn in their female voices, almost as a metaphor for what so many of us are sensing these days: No matter how many men let slip those blasted dogs, it’s the women who’ll save the planet. With the help of good men.
“Julius Caesar” runs through August 12. Show starts at 5 pm. Bring snacks. And bug spray.