Boarding-school setting of Julius Caesar at SUNY-New Paltz
How to make the most familiar Shakespeare plays seem fresh and relatable is a challenge that faces every director who takes one on, and nowhere is that challenge more daunting than with those of the Bard’s fustier tragedies and histories that are unleavened by comedic characters like Falstaff. “Why Julius Caesar? Why now?” is the title of a panel discussion that will precede the November 20 performance of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at SUNY-New Paltz, and it’s a good question.
Ask 100 Americans what’s their favorite Shakespeare work, and I highly doubt that you’ll find five who will answer “Julius Caesar.” If we were rewriting Dante’s Inferno, it’s tough to imagine that we’d pick Brutus and Cassius to be two of the Most Evil People Ever to be chewed on by Satan’s three heads at the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell, either. We just don’t relate to the Divine Right of Kings the same way the Elizabethans did; culturally and historically we have a soft spot for rebels, and a lot of us still have our old Question Authority buttons stashed in a drawer somewhere.
So a modern staging of Julius Caesar calls for a radical rethinking, if it’s not to be a crashing bore in spite of the lofty language. How to make it feel pertinent to the world of contemporary college students? Lauren Bone Noble, adjunct lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz, has found an interesting, if risky, angle of attack: violence, as manifested in the context of an elite girls’ boarding school where envy and resentment of the popular student council president/homecoming queen eventually turns to murder.
Bullying, with sometimes-fatal outcomes, is certainly an issue that troubles today’s headlines and piques public debate on how it is best addressed. “Violence didn’t happen ‘long ago’ or ‘over there.’ It is here. It is now. It is us,” says Bone Noble. “By eliminating the safe distance of history and putting the weapons in the hands of young people, we examine our own complicity in the violent world in which we live.”
Shakespeare purists need not panic: The original language will be retained in this production; only the setting and the gender of the characters will be changed. Julius Caesar will run at the McKenna Theatre on campus from November 12 to 15 and 19 to 22. Sunday matinées begin at 2 p.m.; curtain time for Thursday through Saturday performances is 8 p.m.
Tickets cost $18 general admission; $16 for seniors age 62 and up, New Paltz faculty and staff and non-New Paltz students; and $10 for SUNY-New Paltz students. The aforementioned pre-show panel, hosted by the English Department and moderated by associate professor Tom Olsen, begins at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, November 20, and admission is free.
The McKenna Theatre box office is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets can also be purchased online at https://www.newpaltz.edu/theatre. For additional information call (845) 257-3880.