Theater review: Taffety Punk's all-female 'Julius Caesar'

Jessica Lefkow as the sly Cassius.
Jessica Lefkow as the sly Cassius. (Erin Williams - Twp)
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By Celia Wren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his early gubernatorial days, the characters in "Julius Caesar" take a dim view of girly men. Cassius gripes that Rome has become "womanish" and mocks Caesar for resembling "a sick girl." Brutus dismissively equates cowards with "the melting spirits of women." Exhortations to greater virility fly thick and fast.

Given this macho posturing, you'd think a staging of the play with an all-female cast could register as coyly self-conscious. But director Lise Bruneau has smartly engineered an all-distaff-side "Julius Caesar" that doesn't smack of nudging gimmickry. Brisk, focused and boasting several strong performances, this engaging Taffety Punk Theatre Company offering speaks less about its own casting ploy (thank goodness) than it does about urgent contemporary matters: the power of spin, the energy of populism, the clash between emotion and reason in politics.

The achievement is all the more remarkable given that Bruneau's intimate, visually spare production includes a stage-wide mirror, positioned just behind the ziggurat of black risers that is the other major set element. (Daniel Flint handled the scenic execution.) The actors -- who wear black boots and modern, black streetwise garb -- sometimes gaze at the mirror, turning their backs to the audience without concealing their faces. Not solely a gender-referencing conceit, the mirror suits a drama with characters who talk about flattery and scrutinize appearances for partisan intent. "You cannot see yourself/So well as by reflection," Cassius (Jessica Lefkow) observes in Act 1, spinning Brutus (Esther Williamson) around to face the glass.

Sometimes flooded with red light, Bruneau's Romans scheme, fret and battle to the intermittent accompaniment of punk-beat underscoring and other eerie music. (Chris Curtis and Taffety Punk Artistic Director Marcus Kyd, respectively, designed the lighting and sound.) The performers -- some of whom appeared in Taffety Punk's previous "Riot Grrrls" all-female Shakespeares (2008's "Romeo and Juliet" and 2009's "Measure for Measure") -- have mastered a confident masculine gait and posture. The swaggering physicality, in interplay with the vaguely skinhead-like attire, helps ratchet up the tension. (The line-flubbing that occasionally tripped up the press performance was no doubt a temporary, early-in-the-run problem.)

With her fierce expression and quietly cocky strut, Lefkow is particularly compelling as a wily Cassius -- one who truly has the "lean and hungry look" that Caesar (Tiernan Madorno) notices. Rahaleh Nassri is the production's other trump card: A calm intensity and a coolly modulating rhetorical style brand her Mark Antony as a scarily competent statesman and manipulator. The character's matter-of-fact tone, as he decrees that his own nephew "shall not live," chills.

Williamson's Brutus, by contrast, seems pallid, and the actress's tendency to rush her lines doesn't help. Admittedly, to take a charitable view, this Brutus's lack of magnetism supports the play's suggestion that demagoguery trounces rationalism on the civic playing field. (Brutus would not be a good Exhibit A for Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity.)

In smaller roles, Madorno aptly brings a slightly comic rock-star arrogance to Caesar; Suzanne Richard nails the personalities of Decius, a quick-thinking conspirator, and Artemidorus, a stuffily perturbed Caesar supporter; and Emma Jaster is downright spooky as the Soothsayer ("Beware the Ides of March!").

Other performances are less persuasive (all the actors field multiple roles), and the fight scenes look extremely fake. Of course, if your attention wanders, you can always look at yourself in the mirror: After all, this tale of Roman politics and power struggle is also a tale about us, now.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lise Bruneau; costume design, Scott Hammar; fight consulting, Lorraine Ressegger; weapons consulting, Paul Gallagher; voice and text coach, Kimberly Gilbert. With Toni Rae Brotons, Rana Kay, Katie Molinaro and Abby Wood. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Oct. 23 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

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