The decision to stage the first all-female production in Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ 15-year history was pretty easy, says troupe founder Jennifer Tober. PSIP’s artistic committee liked local theater artist Elena Alexandratos’ pitch to do “Julius Caesar” that way from the get-go.
The approach neatly inverts the Elizabethan practice of using all-male casts for Shakespeare. It is also a good way – in perhaps Shakespeare’s most male-dominated play – to give women a shot at classic roles like Caesar himself, his loyalist Marc Antony, and Brutus and Cassius, the key conspirators in the would-be emperor’s assassination.
“We felt like we really wanted to kind of push forward diversity, and a feminist agenda, and equality, especially in the light of recent happenings in the United States,” says Tober, who’s also PSIP’s artistic director.
The first of the show’s eight free outdoor performances at three city parks is Saturday, in Frick Park.
All-female productions of Shakespeare are hardly unheard-of: British director Phyllida Law did a distaff “Caesar” in 2012. Just this year, Pittsburgh Public Theater staged “The Tempest” with women in all the roles. (Caliban was played by Shammen McCune, who is cast as Brutus in PSIP’s “Caesar.”)
“We’re not making a really big deal of it, we’re just playing Marc Antony and Brutus and Caesar,” said Harper York, the production’s Marc Antony.
But while the story set in ancient Rome will remain the same, PSIP’s cast of 10 women will inevitably give a different feel to the show – and not just when Cassius, played by Lisa Ann Goldsmith, laments Romans’ lack of resistance to Caesar by saying, “Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish.”
Having women in the play's every role might “in some ways humanize it a bit more,” said York. “When you see larger-than-life people played by men strutting around, just puffing their chests, you can sort of remove yourself from it, and say, ‘That is a different person.’ But when [a role] is played by mothers and lovers and sisters and friends, it really brings it home.”
For Alexandratos, who directs the show, one moment stood out in rehearsals.
“The assassination scene, I got chills,” she said. “Because we’re used to seeing men take power. … That’s a given. But when you see a band of women doing it, it’s really powerful, and really kind of earth-shaking.”
Ultimately, though, it’s this 400-year-old play’s political themes that might strike audiences most.
“Julius Caesar” is set against a backdrop of weird omens breeding fear in the populace, from men afire walking the streets to a night bird “hooting and shrieking by day.” As the conspirator Casca puts it, “Either there is a civil strife in heaven, or else the world, too saucy with the gods, incenses them to send destruction.” Meanwhile, Caesar, a self-aggrandizing populist, molds himself into an authoritarian ruler, and his opponents fear the end of democracy, and confront demagoguery, mob violence, and potential civil war.
“And why should Caesar be a tyrant, then?” says Cassius. “I know he would not be a wolf but that he see the Romans are but sheep; he were no lion, were not Romans hinds. Those that with haste will make a mighty fire begin it with weak straws.”
Simply cast collapsing glaciers and burning rainforests as eerie omens, add a few trollbots to derange our reason, and some observers might see a reasonable facsimile of the current political moment.
Shakespeare’s message in “Caesar,” however, is far from straightforward. Scholars have noted that the play has no real hero: Caesar is portrayed unflatteringly, and conspirators like Cassius stoop to deceit to advance their agendas. Brutus, who perhaps comes off best, is deeply conflicted. Moreover, “Caesar” is scarcely pro-assassination: The gruesome group stabbing of Caesar precipitates still-bloodier civil war after Marc Antony, in his famous “friends, Romans, countrymen,” speech, turn the mob against the conspirators.
Yet “Caesar” has often been staged to comment on the times. Orson Welles’ famed 1937 production costumed the cast to reference fascist Italy and Germany. In 2003, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre paired “Caesar” with “Stuff Happens,” David Hare’s play set behind the scenes in the post-9/11 administration of President George W. Bush, and cast the same actors in key roles in both plays to suggest literary-historical parallels.
In 2017, a modern-dress production of "Caesar" by New York Public Theater’s legendary Shakespeare in the Park depicted the doomed Roman leader as a Donald Trump look-alike. The production attracted enough criticism that two big corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, withdrew their support of the Public. However, in 2012 there was no such outcry when two Minneapolis troupes, the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater, cast Caesar with a ringer for Barack Obama.
But don’t look for any American flags, let along MAGA hats, in PSIP’s production. The troupe makes no explicit references to current events.
“I don’t think we have to,” said Alexandratos.
“It’s really about just telling the story about power, and about how blind ambition can make things go terribly awry,” said Tober.
After all, while the production is being billed as “a timely political tragedy,” its concerns are timeless.
“I think we’re seeing the deterioration of democratic institutions. And I think this play really speaks to that,” said Irene Alby, the West Virginia-based actor who plays Caesar. “It also speaks to the kind of choices that politicians have to make – whether they’re going to go along with somebody’s agenda, or whether they’re going to fight against it.”
Others perceive a cautionary tale about the precarious nature of political stability.
“There are people in this play who say, ‘You have to watch out for this person, this person, this person. Please pay attention,’” says McCune. “And look what happens. Look what happens when you do not care for the thing that so many people have carefully, lovingly built. It will fall apart. Quickly, at times. And you can’t always race to catch up and put it back.”
The show’s opening weekend performances on Sept. 7 and 8, take place Saturday and Sunday in Frick Park. On Sept. 14 and 15, it moves to Highland Park, and on Sept. 21 and 22 to Arsenal Park, before returning to Frick for closing weekend (Sept. 28 and 29).
Performances are rain or shine. Admission is free but donations are accepted. No seating is supplied, so audiences are encouraged to bring blankets or lawn chairs and a picnic.