Tennessee Shakespeare Company's all-female production of "Julius Caesar" is a tough act to swallow.
Maybe it's the picture of women as hard-hearted assassins, or seeing them on a battlefield clashing swords and screeching like Amazons, or committing suicide for the good of the Roman Empire. This isn’t how ladies should behave!
Yet this conceit poses for viewers challenging and much-needed questions, including this one: If conspiracy and violence doesn't look right when women do it, why is it acceptable for men to behave the same way?
In this respect, producing artistic director Dan McCleary's nimble and stirringly performed adaptation of "Julius Caesar" — an already instructive tale about the wrong way to dispatch a beloved public figure — is a bold new way to look at honor, womanhood and power.
"Women at some time are masters of their fates," says the stern Cassius, played by the stately Vanessa Morosco. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Changing little more than the pronouns in the script, McCleary gender-flips the entire universe. Here, women are the movers and shakers. The reordering of so many famous lines forces us to consider Shakespeare in a surprisingly different way. ("For Brutus is an honorable woman, so are they all, all honorable women..."; "As she was valiant, I honor her; but, as she was ambitious, I slew her.")
Wearing light-colored dresses, the actors don't revoke their femininity; they are not mannish caricatures of Roman senators. In the final scene between Brutus (played by a gentle and even-tempered Elizabeth Raetz) and Cassius, real tears are shed when they consider what they had done. The macho rhetoric becomes emotionally charged. The seven cast members, each playing multiple roles, dance Emma Crystal's choreography with lightness and grace, though their daggers slice through the air in all directions.
A clever dramatic touch is Iren Zombor’s intuitive underscoring on the cello, an instrument some consider to have a masculine voice.
All of this takes place right under the seal of the City of Germantown, inside the city hall where a woman has been the mayor since 1994. Bringing "Julius Caesar" to an actual civic forum makes this one of the few environmental theater pieces staged in the perfect environment.
From beginning to end, Tennessee Shakespeare Company fills the brick and wood room with fierce energy. The actors’ impeccable diction and vehement delivery keep the pace moving and the unease building. The scale may be small, but the ideas are big in this unique production.
"Julius Caesar" by Tennessee Shakespeare Company, runs through April 11 at Germantown City Hall, 1930 Germantown Road South. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $24-$36. Call 759-0604.