Shakespeare’s plays may be over 400 years old, but they haven’t aged a day. Their universal themes — love, greed, obsession, revenge — mean even the same play can have infinite interpretations.
This season brings a rare treat of a side-by-side comparison with two very different productions of “Julius Caesar.” Shakespeare in the Park set the show in the era of President Trump, but now it’s time to visit a place just as vicious as Washington, D.C.: high school.
Anyone who thinks girls are too emotional to run the world needs to revisit their Shakespeare.
“Julius Caesar,” in particular, makes it perfectly clear that men are responsible for plenty of history’s worst scars. And yet, somehow, we don’t hold their entire sex accountable for it!
What better way to reveal this double standard than by staging this play with all women, and seeing what we think about their decisions then?
“People rarely leave ‘Julius Caesar’ and think: ‘Wow, those men were catty!’” says Alyssa May Gold, the creative mind behind the new production opening June 23 at Access Theater. “I hope by using the same epic language and stakes to illuminate the tension and power struggles with which young women contend, we will stop dismissing their behavior as catty. Culturally, we let men stand in as the neutral human, which is something I’m eager to upend.”
Of course, in Shakespeare’s time, all of the roles would have been played by men. Not only is Pocket Universe reversing that precedent, the company is also placing its gender-flipped “Julius Caesar” inside one of the most volatile settings known to modern times: an all-girls high school.
“There is no more epically emotional creature than the human teenager,” Gold explains. “Many of the themes of ‘Julius Caesar’ are directly related to teenagers: peer pressure, jealousy, isolation, the struggle to find a self-identity within a group.”
If this is all reminding you of a certain Tina Fey-Lindsay Lohan comedy, you’re not alone. “I’m surprised no one talks about ‘Election’ or ‘The Social Network,’ which explore power structures and relationships similar to those in ‘Julius Caesar,’ in the context of a school,” Gold says of the frequent comparisons between her play and “Mean Girls.” (Incidentally, that film is being adapted for Broadway in 2018.)
“Where those movies use the ideas of ‘Julius Caesar’ to explore how the story physically manifests itself in a contemporary school setting, we’re relying on [the Bard’s] specific words and poetry to explore how it manifests itself emotionally.”
Gold knows a thing or two about that movie’s oft-cited “Julius Caesar” rant, since in addition to producing this show, she also stars as Brutus (aka the original Gretchen Weiners).
“Brutus is the character who is both closest and farthest from me as a person, which makes her exciting to explore,” she says. “The first time I saw the play, I recognized the attempts to use logic to make sense of intense feelings (and, in doing so, often missing the larger point) as something teenagers do. What it would be like if teenage girls could see a young woman going through it, too?”
Ultimately, however, no one on the nearly all-female creative team wanted to let the show become kitschy, Gold says. “Rather than force the concept onto the text, we made sure the text was the guiding force in building this world. We sought further inspiration from the historical context and critical analysis of the play, and then worked to marry that with the high school experience.”
Although it won’t always mean gender-blind casting, this is just the beginning for Pocket Universe. “Going forward, my company’s mission is to reconsider and reimagine classic stories and conventions, and there are so many ways to do that,” Gold says. “The most important thing for me is always making sure that the story is at the forefront, however we’re exploring it.”
If you go:
June 23-July 8
Access Theater, 380 Broadway
Tickets: $18, caesarbeware.com