Visceral Caesar at Invictus seems Ripped from the News
Tucked into a small storefront in Edgewater, Invictus Theater has ambitiously tackled and updated Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in a way you will never forget. Bloody, violent, loud and only a few feet from your body, fifteen actors fill the space with power grabs, murder, war, suicide, gunshots and mob violence. It is shattering, and absolutely current.
If you don’t know the story, Caesar returns from a military victory through jubilant crowds, here with red hats and flags much like the January 6th insurrectionists. The esteemed senators, disturbed by his appeal, plot to assassinate him, enlisting Brutus by convincing him that Caesar will harm the freedom and liberty of Rome. A soothsayer and Caesar’s wife try to warn Caesar to stay away from the Senate on March 15th, but he goes, and is brutally stabbed to death by a cabal of noblemen. The murderers do not hide their crime– Brutus gives a patriotic speech justifying it, while Marc Antony, friend to Caesar, deftly turns the mob to rage against the conspirators. The second half of the show is the war waged by Antony and Caesar’s adopted heir Octavius against the ringleaders of the assignation: Brutus and Cassius. The stage is littered with corpses in the end– it's a matter of historical record but no spoilers here.
Caesar, as played by company member Chuck Munro, is not a likeable leader. He is unsure and uses a bellow to overpower. Mikha’el Amin’s Mark Antony is a far more sympathetic and thoughtful leader, strategic in how he plays his cards. Director Charles Askenaizer steps into the role of Brutus and portrays him as an honorable man who is easily manipulated by blustery and entitled Cassius played by Daniel Houle. Standouts in the ensemble where 15 people play a cast of thousands are Maria Clara Ospina who plays Calphurnia, Caesar’s unlucky 4th wife, a young Cato, and Lucius as well as others, giving each character a distinct feel, and Colin K. Jones an utter chameleon who is the Soothsayer, Caius Ligarius, Octavius’s attendant and Strato. A round of applause to the quick changes and the costume designs by Emily Bloomer– there is great skill in convincing an upclose audience that these people represent so many characters and great costumes help immensely.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not a clean metaphor for what happened in our last presidency despite numerous references to that attempted coup. Yet this play is an unabashed look at how power corrupts and also the kind of brutality and chaos that ensue from violent power seizures, and is perhaps a cautionary tale for our own time. Invictus holds you in a tiny space to physically encounter the visceral horror of the mob and its deadly energy. Characters expound on honor and love, but it's hard to see any of that through the blood oozing and imprinted everywhere.
Finally, hats off to Sarafina Vecchio who ably coached this ensemble into revealing Shakespeare's language as modern sounding as your favorite political podcast. You have heard these speeches before but never like this. This is a Caesar for everyone.
Julius Caesar is playing at the Reginald Vaughn Theater at 1106 W Thorndale Avenue in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm through November 20, 2022. For tickets and information go to www.invictustheatreco.com.
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