Julius Caesar has risen.
The classic Shakespeare play has reemerged as a topic of national debate. Due to the Public Theater’s new staging of the play, in which the Caesar character suggests a physical similarity to the current U.S. President, corporate sponsors have dropped their support for the production and pro-Trump protests have continuously interrupted the show. “Stop leftist violence!” and “New York Public Theater is ISIS!” proclaimed alt-right journalist Laura Loomer, who rushed onto the stage during the June 16th performance. She was taken away by security and was booed by the audience all the way out, but this hasn’t prevented similar disruptive instances to continue occurring during this year’s annual and iconic Shakespeare In The Park program.
For those who are familiar with the play, the fury and backlash that the Public Theater has endured hardly makes sense. After all, Julius Caesar is a play that warns against violent uprisings. It deftly illustrates how this approach is never to be condoned and clearly condemns bloodshed as a method to voice discontent. Yet the fact that this discourse has once again sparked such fervent conversation on a mainstream scale only further cements Shakespeare’s work as timeless, topical, and necessary.
Downtown from Central Park, another production of Julius Caesar is tackling the contemporary world through its unique interpretation of the text. Now playing at the Access Theater, Julius Caesar features an entirely female cast and sets the world of the play within the walls of an all-girls high school. I spoke with Alyssa May Gold, who plays Brutus and conceived the idea of this production, about the play’s enduring legacy, modern relevance, and much more.
NAGORSKI: How did the idea to set Julius Caesar in a modern-day all-girls high school come to you?
This all started for me with the idea of teenage Brutus. The first time I saw this play I was so fascinated by the way Brutus thinks, and the logic he uses to try to understand his feelings, and what’s right and what’s wrong and if something is wrong, what is his responsibility is to do something about it? It reminded me of what it felt like to be a teenager and try to figure out what my own personal beliefs were and what my responsibility was as an adult in the world. I started to build the world of this production from there and there were plenty of iterations before I realized that by making them all teenage girls, by going all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum as far away from Roman Senators in togas as possible, we could tap into the universality of the play’s message.
What is it about this play that lends itself so well to this current adaptation and setting?
Shakespeare was a master of using language to explore epic, heightened emotions and teenagers are the masters of feeling epic, heightened emotions so it felt natural to marry the two and allow the teenage experience the weight of Shakespeare’s words. Julius Caesar specifically works so well because most of the themes at the heart of the story are similar to those that we contend with as we come of age— finding a self-identity in the face of peer pressure, feeling isolated or jealous or betrayed, discovering the power you do have and navigating how to use it.
Growing up, did you attend an all-girls high school? If so, how did that experience inform this adaptation? If not, what type of research did you have to do to get a firm understanding of what those experiences are like?
Because the play is so expertly crafted, we didn’t want to do anything that was going to force the concept onto it. We wanted to allow the text to inform the world we’re creating so we actually went the opposite route and focused our research on ancient Rome, the events leading up to and following Caesar’s assassination, and the real people involved in it. I didn’t attend an all-girls high school but most of the parallels we found between this story and our high school experiences felt universally true to that time in everyone’s lives when all feelings are magnified to extremes.
What (if any) aspects of the original text had to be modified for this production?
The only major change we made was to the pronouns and we also turned almost every instance of “man” into “girl.” It gives me chills every time I hear Madeline Wolf, who plays Cassius, say “Girls at some times are masters of their fates” or our Antony, Violeta Picayo say “So are they all, all honorable girls.” Usually women in an audience are asked to do a quick translation every time “man” is used to stand in for “all of humanity” and it’s thrilling to upend that convention.
In the show, you play Brutus. Aside from the character now being female, how is your interpretation of Brutus different than what audiences might expect from the character?
Because my Brutus already looks so different from what people expect, I’ve tried to let the character as Shakespeare wrote him guide my interpretation. She’s still a deeply conflicted person who is attempting to do the right thing, who thinks of herself as very logical person but whose feelings (and actions) belie her stoic resolve. It’s been so exciting being in rehearsal with everyone and seeing how seamlessly we mesh with our characters—it’s a real testament to how wonderfully Shakespeare wrote about humankind. He wasn’t writing about men specifically, he was writing about all humans and how we relate to each other and the world around us and it’s been a real treat to get to tap into that.
How influential was the movie Mean Girls when you were bringing this idea to life? Where else did you draw inspiration from?
I picked up the play already aware of its strong connections to The Social Network and then definitely had the moment reading it when I realized “OH of course! It’s also Mean Girls!” but other than that there wasn’t a whole lot the movies could do to help because we’re relying solely on Shakespeare’s words to capture how these situations manifest emotionally in the world of a school. That’s been a really wonderful group effort in the room this past month and the stories people have brought in from their own high school days are chilling enough we haven’t had to look much beyond that for inspiration.
The show will be playing off-Broadway at the Access Theater through July 8th. What are your plans for it after this initial run ends?
I would love to give it another life and am doing everything I can to facilitate that but I would still strongly recommend coming to see it in the next three weeks. There’s a unique energy to the first time a company gets together to tell a story in a certain way and whatever happens after, the next three weeks are definitely going to be wild.
What have been some of your personal favorite recent Shakespeare adaptations, both on stage and on film?
The two plays from the Donmar Trilogy that I saw, Henry IV and The Tempest, are at the top of the list. I could talk forever about what it meant to see women play those roles but the most important piece of it for me was they were ultimately also excellent productions of those plays.
These don’t count as recent anymore (yikes!) but I also love all the teen rom-coms based on Shakespeare’s plays like She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, and the lesser known but just as classic Get Over It.
What is the primary takeaway that you are hoping audiences will leave this show with?
My biggest hope is that this production will speak to everyone, and in doing so, show how much we are all struggling with the exact same things. Adult or teenager, politician or high school student, everyone has a relationship to power and the struggle to understand how to use it when you have a lot of it or how to get more if you feel like you have none. The more people recognize how much we’re all in the same boat, the more opportunities there are to connect with each other and struggle together. I always want people who feel alone to know that they’re not.
What do you find to be the parallels between the almost warning call of this play and the political climate of today’s world?
The political parallel that I would encourage audiences of any production to hold onto is the power the people of Rome have in this play. Brutus spends all of Act 2 and most of the post-assassination scene working out how he’s going to spin this coup to the people. I would argue the one undeniable mistake Brutus makes is letting Antony speak at the funeral. The people’s allegiance turns on a dime three times over the course of the just the first half of the play—from Pompey to Caesar, Caesar to Brutus, and then Brutus to Antony, and their democracy is still destroyed at the end because they just follow whoever sounds the best in the moment. It’s a real lesson on how you have to be informed and make your own decisions and not be fooled by rhetoric or get swept up in group-think. You have to think for yourself and hold onto your beliefs. And if you’re 18 or older, vote. What you should get from this play is that you have power – use it.
How has the controversy surrounding the Public Theater’s current run of Julius Caesar impacted your production? What are your thoughts on how it has been received?
I think the play is a really human exploration of how people relate to power. There are a million ways to reimagine both the historical events of the ides of March, 44BC and Shakespeare’s interpretation of them and freedom of speech and expression are paramount to the ability to do that. I hope we always protect everyone’s right to both and keep each other safe in the process.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Julius Caesar, now playing at the Access Theater in New York City through July 8.