All-female “Julius Caesar” takes over Pittsburgh Parks


Image courtesy of Caiolinn Ertel

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

By MJ LaRocque, For the Pitt News

On a hot autumn afternoon, leaves fell gracefully from the trees in Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville — in the distance, women’s voices rang out, speaking in Elizabethan English.

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks celebrated its 15th Anniversary with an all-female production of “Julius Caesar,” which runs Saturdays and Sundays throughout the month of September. This past weekend was the group’s second-to-last performance. Director Elena Alexandratos said she wanted to use an all-female cast to break away from male-dominated, traditional Shakespearian theater.

“Almost 500 years ago women were not permitted onstage. Shakespeare’s women were portrayed by young boys and the comedic women by older men,” Alexandratos said in the director’s notes of the program. “In the present day, I want to show that actors that are female can play all aspects of the human condition — that we are courageous and tender all in the same blink of an eye.”

“Julius Caesar” recounts the triumphs of General Julius Caesar when he returns to Rome from battle. Caesar is crowned king for his achievements, but his adviser, Brutus, fears that Caesar will destroy the kingdom. Brutus and other Senate members kill Caesar, leading them to commit suicide out of guilt.

In the latter half of the show, cast members walked into the crowd, mimicking the public moving around the outside of the Senate house. During this scene, Marc Antony, who did not help kill Caesar, delivered a speech that would “turn the citizens of Rome against the assassins” of Julius Caesar. Jay Margolis, senior biology major at Chatham University, found this scene particularly moving.

“I really love the speech,” they said, “I had to memorize it in high school, but seeing it like done passionately and willingly, is really cool.”

It turns out the performer, Harper York, 40, who plays Marc Antony, also enjoyed this interaction with the audience. She moved to Pittsburgh six years ago to start a theater group, Pittsburgh Classic Players, for which she is the artist director.

York said attending the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program at Mary Baldwin University in Virginia prepared her for the role of Marc Antony, where she studied the “Julius Caesar” monologues extensively as part of the program. This time around, she brought her own twists to the role.

“The way we stage it in the other parks, I’m actually in a specific position,” York said, “like last week I was up a tree at Highland Park and I did the speech from there but here [there was] no real access to low limbs so [I] just went with the idea of weaving my way through the audience and connecting with them more that way.”

As the show ended, the sun was just barely covered by clouds, and the only interruption was that of cicadas chirping on nearby trees. Susan Wadsworth-Booth, a frequentor of PSIP productions with an MFA in nonfiction writing from Pitt, said she enjoyed how close the audience could be to the performers in the park, with the actors moving through the same space as the people watching.

“I love the way a group like this … can give you that little facial expression that lets you in on the joke, which I think they do a really good job of.” Wadsworth-Booth said.

PSIP condensed the traditionally several-hour production into 90 minutes. The mob scene, after Marc Antony convinces the townspeople to chase after the assassins, was cut from the show, along with some other action scenes. Though these moments help break up monologues, Wadsworth-Booth enjoyed the way the actors brought life to their speech-heavy roles.

“It’s hard to take a tragedy like that and a history play and shorten it and make it understandable to people,” she said. “[The cast] can give you that little facial expression that lets you in on the joke.”

Irene Ably, 45, moved to Morgantown, West Virginia just three years ago to teach at West Virginia University, but she made the commute to Pittsburgh to star as Julius Caesar. Ably said she was not as familiar with “Julius Caesar” as other works of Shakespeare, which led her to research and dig deep into the role.

“I think that because we’re all women, we have the freedom to interpret men and maybe show their faults even more than maybe a man would feel comfortable doing,” she said. “We have the freedom to … not hold back.”

Lynette Asson is a Board Member of PSIP, and, according to Alby, helped substantially with promoting the show. Asson said everyone involved in the production was thrilled by the reception from the public and was grateful for their support.

“Once [the show] was announced, people were really very excited, so that makes me think that having an all-female cast perhaps is an area in Pittsburgh we need to think more about.” Asson said.

While this is almost the end of the outdoor production season, some performers wish they could do more. Shammen McCune, who portrayed Brutus, moved to Pittsburgh in 2005. She found it difficult to stay fresh with the material with almost a week between performances.

“Dare I say it … I wish we could do a five show weekend,” McCune said.

Leave a comment.