“Creating is the essence of life,” said title character Julius Ceasar in Shakespeare’s classic. No line may better fit Mercy’s annual celebration of literature and language.
The School of Liberal Arts held their 34 annual Christie Day celebration in the Rotunda of Mercy College’s Dobbs Ferry Campus on April 4.
Christie Day is a celebration held in honor of Sister Joannes Christie, the Founder of the English Department of Mercy College. Sister Christie was known for her great love of Shakespeare and his works. In her honor, each year around the date of Shakespeare’s birth, the School of Liberal Arts holds a celebration, and hosts a performance of one of his immortal plays. This year: Julius Caesar.
According to Dr. Christine Woody, the organizer of this year’s Christie Day Celebration, “Christie Day is an opportunity for people to come together around a rich literary text.”
With only a cast of six, The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s minimalist take on the illustrious tragedy filled the Rotunda with vibrant and immersive action, as they brought one of Shakespeare’s most-loved plays to life.
The stage is set. The audience is split into two blocks of seating, packed full and parted down the middle. A backdrop, cloudy gray decorated with golden coronets stretching toward the ceiling. A lone throne sits in the middle of the stage.
The Rotunda quiets, seemingly holding its breath as the performers begin. The actors spread out, and filter into the crowd. The audience members on the right of the isle are permeated by actors in varying shades of white and light gray, campaigning for people to join Team Caesar, while handing out white ribbons. They lead their side of the audience in the chant “Long Live Caesar.”
In stark contrast, the left side of the audience is surrounded by actors in deep grays and blacks, recruiting for Team Democracy. In response to the chanting from the right side of the room, the actors begin a new chant with their own audience, “Down with Caesar.” The mounting chants and cheers echo and bounce off the walls of the Rotunda surrounding the audience, transporting them to Ancient Rome.
The action begins showing the discourse and rising action of the play. There is brewing conspiracy building against Julius Caesar. Caesar, played by Jovani Zambrano, commands a regal presence, sweeping around the stage embodying the spirit of Julius Caesar himself. Actors pace around the audience, shouting, using live instruments, bouncing a cacophony of sounds around the room. In a moment of deafening quiet during a lull in the action, an actor, the Soothsayer, slinks behind the audience and hisses one of the most well-known lines of the play, “Beware the ides of March!”
The action leads to a breathtaking climax: The stabbing of Caesar. The actors crowd around and enclose Caesar in a circle, stabbing him to a thrumming and steady drumbeat. Time seems to slow, even stop, as the audience leans in with bated breath, as Caesar gasps out his final utterance, “E tu, Brute?”
The play, purposefully minimal, has been cut down to run within 90 minutes, without losing any of its power, meaning, or beauty. A momentary pause in the action allows audience members the briefest of moments to catch their breath, and watch as the gray and golden gilded backdrop falls. In its place now stands a crimson sheet, with a clear sheet hanging just in front of it, creating another space on stage, almost another plane of existence. Again the play picks up, actors jumping between rolls without pause, quick costume changes and immense talent give the feeling of a full cast: sixty rather than just six.
The play continues, showcasing a newly freed Rome, the victorious conspirators celebrating the death of Caesar, and Antony, clearly heartbroken over the loss of their leader. Without missing a beat, the play shifts its focus onto the funeral scene. The audience once again is entranced as Brutus and Cassius deliver their speech, not only to the imaginary romans, but to the audience. Beseeching them, attempting to convince them. The audience sees the perspective of Team Democracy. Brutus, played by Christopher Robert Ellis, delivers his speech alongside Cassius, played by Amanda Thickpenny. Their speech is delivered flawlessly, with passion and vigor, perfectly in-step with the tempo of the plot.
This is followed by yet another infamous speech, one given by Antony as he reads the will of Caesar. Once again, not only is it addressed to the imagined mob of roman citizens, but to the audience as well, including them in the heat of the moment. Antony gives the perspective of Team Caesar, entreating the mob to hear his side.
Antony, played by Zoe Goslin, delivers one of the most famous speeches from any of Shakespeare’s works in an unwavering voice, while standing high above the audience. “You can see the knife’s edge that Antony is balancing on during this scene with the mob,” says Dr. Christine Woody. “It is exciting to see the performance and the interpretation as well as attention brought to the rolls.”
Although the mob is swayed in favor of Antony, the audience is still left to come to their own decision. According to the director of the play, Illana Stein, “This is about picking sides. I don’t want the audience to be in the middle, I want them to make a decision. Choose a side! If your side changes, choose again!”
The final act of the play comes to a close with a battle, Team Democracy fighting Team Caesar. Carefully choreographed fighting stretches across the Rotunda, seemingly endless clashes and conflict. As the full scale slow motion battle comes to a close and the dust settles, Team Caesar is victorious.
“It is about getting to see a bunch of Shakespearian actors casting about in the dark, trying to determine what is true, and dealing with uncertainty.” says Woody.
As as the conspirators, Cassius and Brutus, fall upon their swords, the audience is forced to make a decision about them. Heroes? Villains? Perhaps something in-between.
Even Anthony has to admire Brutus in death. “For this was the noblest Roman of all.”