Shakespeare’s dark politics in daylight
Chris Lysy as Julius Caesar fends off the attack of Geoffrey Zimmerman, playing Publius during a rehearsal of "Julius Caesar." | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Muse of Fire Theatre Company, Ingraham Park (behind the Morton Civic Center), 2100 Ridge Ave., Evanston
3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Aug. 4-19 and Sept. 1-9
Admission is free
Call (847) 707-8632 or visit www.museoffire.org
Updated: August 10, 2012 11:48AM
It’s a presidential election year, so it’s only natural that Evanston’s Muse of Fire Theatre Company chose Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for its annual outdoor summer production.
“The fascinating thing about this play in terms of what’s going on in this country right now is that Shakespeare doesn’t take sides,” said Muse of Fire founder and artistic director Jemma Alix Levy, who is also staging this free production opening Aug. 4 in Ingraham Park. “He says, ‘Here’s one side of this political struggle and here’s the other. And neither one of them is particularly good.’
“I think a lot of people these days feel they’re facing a similar situation, where they have to choose the lesser of two evils. And it’s important to realize that this has been going on for quite a long time. I think this play has a lot to say about politics in general.
“Actually, it sort of destroys politics from the inside out.”
Not a favorite
Though that’s not the impression many people would have of Shakespeare’s drama about political corruption, betrayal and assassination based on an enforced reading in high school, Levy said.
“A lot of people, if they remember this play at all, probably just think of it as something they suffered through in school,” Levy added.
She noted that “Julius Caesar” is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to read — and one that always left her somewhat cold despite years of devotion to the Bard in graduate study.
“Performed, it’s fabulous, but it’s really hard to get off of a page. That’s one reason I wanted to direct it. It’s nice to be able to say, ‘Hey, you know that play you vaguely remember not liking from high school? Come and see it. Then you’ll understand why it’s still around 400 years after it was written.’ ”
That understanding is why Levy, who has advanced degrees from Juilliard and the University of Chicago and the American Shakespeare Center, founded Muse of Fire with a commitment to staging productions that emphasize audience accessibility — financially and aesthetically.
Plays for people
“I think people feel
intimidated, these days, when they think of going
to the theater, because they see barriers involving education and class — especially when it costs $60 to buy a ticket. That’s why a fundamental part of our mission is offering plays for free. Theater is being perceived as an elite art form and, for me, that’s not what it should be at all.”
Levy said she is often frustrated by the common perception that Shakespearean theater is rarified and elitist because “that’s so clearly not the way it was intended to be. Shakespeare wrote his plays on purpose so they could be understood and enjoyed by anyone who walked into the theater.
“We uphold that same sensibility,” she said, describing the company’s professional, though low-tech, productions. “Our shows are up close and personal. They are outdoors in the middle of the day. We have no lights, we have no sound equipment, we have no stage. The actors also interact with the audiences a great deal, which is how we imagine it was done during Shakespeare’s time.”
The result, she said, is the sort of accessibility that invites the audience into the story.
“When you eliminate the boundaries between the performers and the audience, the audience becomes part of the play, in a way that doesn’t happen in a darkened theater.”