Before the opening scene of “Julius Caesar’’ at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, the audience is treated to the sight of a body hanging above the stage, punctuated by the percussive hammering of music over the sound system.
Although the corpse is wrapped in black plastic from head to toe, we have a pretty good idea who it is.
Thus does director Bryn Boice establish a foreboding mood while suggesting the patterns of fatefulness that will subsequently run through her darkly compelling if sometimes draggy production of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
In this all-female “Julius Caesar,’’ it is women who rule, women who map a strategy to eliminate a figure they view as a tyrant in the making, women who collectively execute that strategy (and that figure), and women who ultimately (to borrow a phrase) “cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.’’
Arriving at a cultural moment rife with accounts of male misdeeds, including a photograph of Al Franken treating a sleeping woman as a sexual prop, there’s an undeniable impact to a “Julius Caesar’’ where the women are anything but helpless.
In adding gender to the equation, the ASP production also subtracts it, asking us to consider the play’s questions about power, ambition, and violence in a re-imagined world where men are invisible and it is women who control their own destinies.
The change here is verbal as well as visual: Pronouns and gender-specific words have been switched to the feminine, so that familiar speeches land in new ways on the ear.
For all that, the strengths of this “Julius Caesar’’ are generally Shakespeare’s strengths, and its weaknesses — including a second act that loses momentum even as the body count piles up — can generally be laid at his feet as well. (Though the Bard bears no blame for the fact that actors sometimes stepped on each other’s lines at Saturday night’s performance.) The cast is mainly attired in black cloaks, black pants, and black boots, and the walls of Studio 210 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre are encased in black plastic akin to that enclosing the aforementioned body (the set design is by Cristina Todesco, part of an all-female design team).
Liz Adams makes for a suitably imperious Caesar, a ruler who is doomed, for all her confidence, to be assassinated at virtually the very hour of her triumph. Bobbie Steinbach lends a gravely sorrowful air to Cassius, one of the conspirators, while Marya Lowry conjures gravitas and weariness as Brutus, their brooding leader. (This consistently fine actress, who played the traditionally male role of Prospero in last year’s ASP production of “The Tempest,’’ would be a natural for the title role if the company did an all-female “King Lear.’’) Lowry’s Brutus seems burdened by the knowledge that it is not going to end well.
Best of all is Marianna Bassham as Antony, Caesar’s ally and a successor as ruler of Rome. Bassham’s many-shaded portrayal of Antony is a marvel — the latest of many from a performer who never seems to repeat herself. Bassham creates an Antony who is both worldly and feral, a leader who delivers an artful speech that subtly pushes emotional buttons to galvanize the masses against Caesar’s murder, but whose own private reaction to that murder is one of visceral, wordless, choking fury.
There’s little question that we are in the season of “Caesar.’’ Actors’ Shakespeare Project is but the latest theater company to seize upon the presidency of Donald Trump, from which emanates a distinct odor of authoritarianism, as an opportune time to stage the play.
A production at New York’s Public Theater created a stir last summer after a bootleg video circulated on the Internet of a scene in which Caesar, portrayed by an actor made up to resemble Trump, was assassinated. Amid the outcry, artistic director Oskar Eustis pointed to the chaos and bloodshed that are unleashed in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder as a reminder that Shakespeare meant the play to be seen as a cautionary tale.
Today, of course, ASP’s all-female production is unfolding in a public context defined by a spate of allegations that Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and numerous other powerful men, including Trump, have abused their power over women. Against that backdrop, it’s intriguing to see how Boice reworks the end of “Julius Caesar’’ so that Antony’s famous final encomium to Brutus (“This was the noblest Roman of them all . . . nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man’ ’’) so that it registers not just as a victor’s tribute to the vanquished but as a broader statement of female solidarity.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Studio 210, Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 17. Tickets $25-$60, 617-933-8600, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org