Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
SOMERVILLE — Several black-cloaked actors are rehearsing the first scene of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Playing the common folk of ancient Rome, they pace around in circles and murmur with excitement at the imminent arrival of Caesar.
Their director, Bryn Boice, has a note for them: “Say ‘she’ more. ‘She has come! Caesar has come!’”
Repetition of this pronoun will be an early cue to audiences that they’ve entered a different world. It’s one where women are in charge. In fact, they’re everywhere here at rehearsal, onstage and off; the full cast and design team of this upcoming Actors’ Shakespeare Project show are female. The only male in the room at this rehearsal is a Globe writer.
There’s nothing new or particularly controversial at this point about simply casting women to play male roles in Shakespeare. For one thing, it’s a way to take advantage of the talent of more female classical actors, given that the number of male roles in his plays dwarfs those for women. The full text of “Julius Caesar” has about 50 different characters, two of which are specifically written to be women; the balance among Shakespeare’s complete works has been reckoned at an 84 percent/16 percent split.
What’s different here is that Boice has gone far beyond changing pronouns and gendered words, like king and brother, which itself is a step some purists would blanch at. Each character is fully reimagined as a woman, and the world of the play has necessarily been reconfigured to accommodate this. Perhaps it’s the case that contemporary audiences are well used to seeing a play with only two female characters, but when that gender ratio is reversed, the situation seems to call for explanation.
It’s telling that, to answer the question of what the world would be like if women ran things, Boice felt she had to move into the genre of science fiction.
“I read it through again with my adaptation and I was like: This is a sci-fi play. It feels like it is another planet altogether. It really felt like a speculative fiction universe,” she says before a rehearsal at Arts at the Armory.
Boice and her team conjured a futuristic setting with a detailed backstory and mythology, within which the story of “Julius Caesar” is set. It is by no means a utopian picture. Most of the men have been killed off and the remainder enslaved. Boice cites the films “Logan’s Run” and “Planet of the Apes,” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Matter of Seggri,” as inspirations.
Boice has a penchant for wild adaptations of The Bard. As artistic director of Anthem Theatre Company, which she brought to Boston from New York a few years ago, she’s directed free adaptations like Brian MacInnis Smallwood’s “Twelfth Night of the Living Dead” and Johnny Kinsman’s “Romeo VS. Juliet.”
The guiding principle for Shakespeare specialists is that a conceptual rewrapping such as this “Julius Caesar,” which begins performances at Studio 210 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre on Wednesday, is well done if it reveals a fresh perspective on the text rather than merely using the original as a vehicle for a heavy concept.
Beyond the fact that these plays are understood to include truths about human existence that can be revealed in many different ways, Shakespeare himself wrote historical anachronisms into his work. In “Julius Caesar,” the common folk are described as throwing their caps into the air in celebration — a custom that was current in Elizabethan England but not ancient Rome. And of course, in Shakespeare’s day, men played the female parts. Gender-bending is as Shakespearean as ruthless kings.
“When I first read through it with the changed pronouns, it was a little jarring,” says actress Bobbie Steinbach. “Now it makes perfect sense to me. We’re not playing on top of the text, we’re playing inside the text in a very different way and in a very different world.”
Steinbach plays Cassius, the conspirator who aims to bring Marya Lowry’s Brutus into a plot to kill Caesar, here played by Liz Adams. Steinbach and Lowry say that the change of genders means they have to completely rethink their characters.
“This may be the same circumstances as Shakespeare wrote,” Lowry says, “but it’s a different world. We’re all women, relating to women. This is such an iconic play, we all know it and many of us have done it many times. But I keep asking myself: Wait a minute, is this really how I want to respond in this moment? Because I’m not playing a man.”
This interpretation of “Julius Caesar” may take on new resonance in the midst of the ongoing flood of allegations of sexual misconduct committed by various powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere. And a story about a charismatic leader undermining the rule of law of course has other political connotations.
“This play is always pulled out when a new leader comes to power and people want to grapple with leadership and overweening ambition and power gone wrong,” Boice says.
Just a few hours before this particular rehearsal, President Trump, who promised during the campaign to put his opponent in jail if he won, described the American judicial system as “a joke” and “a laughingstock.” The nation needs “justice” that is “much quicker and much stronger” than what the law currently allows, he asserted.
A production of the play this summer by New York’s Public Theater, which portrayed Caesar as a Trump-like figure, was deemed controversial through a deep misreading; far from endorsing its central assassination, “Julius Caesar” suggests that this act of violence leads to the ruin of the republic.
Boice says she’s aiming to be less “literal” than that production. No characters will be presented as contemporary political figures, but at least the “feistiness” of one US senator may be present.
“Think of Elizabeth Warren,” she says, “with leather.”
Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Studio 210 at Huntington Avenue Theatre, Nov. 15-Dec. 17. Tickets: $25-$55, 617-933-8600, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
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