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A fresh take on 'Julius Caesar'

Last Sunday afternoon in the intimate setting of Ashland High School’s Mountain Avenue Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had a special treat for theater lovers.

A dozen OSF actors took the stage against a simple black curtain background. Sitting in comfortable chairs in front of music stands, they read the first draft of writer Shishir Kurup’s new translation of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The reading was part of OSF’s innovative “Play on!” initiative. “Play on!” brings together contemporary playwrights and theater scholars — dramaturgs, as they are called — to translate all 39 plays in Shakespeare’s canon into modern poetic language.

Sunday’s reading featured an outstanding ensemble of OSF acting company members: Jordan Barbour (Marc Antony), Christiana Clark (Brutus), Catherine Castellanos (Cassius), Ted Deasy (Julius Caesar), along with Benjamin Bonenfant, Jon Cates, Connor Chaney, Tamra Mathias, Armando McClain, Galen Molk, K. T. Vogt, and Sabina Zuniga Varela.

Directed by Olivia Espinosa, the dramatic reading of the full play featured sly looks, meaningful gestures, and clever use of the music stands. Ultimately, though, it was all about engaging the audience with the vivid language of the play in a fresh way.

The “Play on!” works are called “translations,” but that word doesn’t do justice to the creative process involved or its rigor. The teams of playwrights and dramaturgs match the rhythm, emotion, feel and imagery of the original work. Lue Morgan Douthit, veteran OSF dramaturg and director of the entire “Play on!” project, explains that there are strict guidelines as well. There can be no cutting or rearranging of the plays and the plays have to remain in the original setting and time period. It’s not Julius Caesar goes to Washington, D.C.

Douthit says she chose Indian-American playwright Kurup for "Julius Caesar" because she had been impressed with his adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice,” set in contemporary Venice, California, among the Hindi and Muslim communities there. Douthit saw Kurup’s “The Merchant on Venice” as “very clever and sharp in its commentary” and she thought he would be interested in the challenge of “Julius Caesar.”

Rogue Valley audiences will recognize Kurup’s name from his earlier work at the festival. He was the director for “Water by the Spoonful” in the 2014 season and “The Happiest Song Plays Last” in the 2015 season. For “Play on!” Kurup was paired with award-winning dramaturg Nancy Keystone, who founded the acclaimed Critical Mass Performance Group based in Los Angeles.

Douthit described Sunday’s reading as “an open rehearsal,” but it was more than that to the 100-plus audience members. Kurup’s “Julius Caesar” keeps Shakespeare very Shakespearean — “The ides of March,” “Et tu, Brute” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” are unchanged, as is most of the text. Most changes were small, a “dost thou” morphs to “do you,” “tis very like” is changed to “it is likely,” “a quick spirit” is clarified as “exuberance.”

One audience member said, “You hardly notice the changed language. It was very seamless.” And the changes allow the listeners to stay with the play. Rather than pondering the meaning of Brutus’ line “That you do love me, I am nothing jealous,” we encounter it translated as “That you do love me, I am in no doubt.”

In a lively group discussion after the performance, Kurup and Keystone answered questions and reflected on the work-in-progress and their process. As Keystone explained, the goal was to change “the fewest words required to make something clearer.” So in the play, when Marc Antony is arguing with Octavius Caesar, he says, “So is my horse, Octavius, and for that do I appoint him store of provender.” Store of provender — basically provisions — may have been clear in 1600, but today, it is a head-scratcher. Kurup renders the line, “So is my horse, Octavius, and I give him all the hay he needs.” That wording makes more sense to us and lets the tension between Octavius and Antony come through more sharply.

Keep your eye open for future readings of “Play on!” translations. If they are anything like “Julius Caesar,” you’ll have a new appreciation for both Shakespeare and for the English language.

Edwin Battistella is a freelance writer living in Ashland. He can be reached at edbattistella@gmail.com.