'Julius Caesar' shakes up stereotypes

During the first week of rehearsal for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Julius Caesar," the actors kept accidentally referring to the Roman dictator as "She-sar."

That's because director Amanda Dehnert cast a woman, Vilma Silva, as Caesar, in an effort to shake up gender roles and comment on gender politics, she said.

"I believe it shows that leadership is a human story, not just a male story," Dehnert said. "I believe it creates different levels of perception depending on where you, the viewer, are coming from — but all that is designed to open up and encourage dialogue about who our leaders are and how we relate to them."

Dehnert decided to cast the strongest actor for the role, without focusing on gender. Once she decided Silva should play Caesar, the role began to expand, offering a commentary on women in leadership, Dehnert said.

"I realized that the uniqueness of a woman in that position contributed to the ways in which Caesar is different," she said. "This is not to say that we do not have female heads of state, but they are the minority in our collective Western history."

Silva begins the production by instructing the audience to cheer loudly whenever she holds her arms above her head in a victorious pose.

"Welcome to the tragedy of 'Julius Caesar,'" she says. "My name is Vilma Silva and I'm going to play Julius Caesar."

Silva plays an ambitious leader who is defined in the play not so much by what she does, but by others' perceptions of her. Dehnert hopes this causes the audience to reflect on what their preconceptions are of real-life leaders.

"I think we are perhaps more accustomed to men being politically ambitious, particularly in American society," Dehnert said. "I think generally, when it comes to leaders, individuals will have a predisposition to either welcome or fear what is new or perhaps outside the norm. We saw the same things within Obama's candidacy, but in regard to race."

Besides some initial confusion, the actors in "Julius Caesar," many of whom have performed the play multiple times, didn't have much trouble with exchanging the traditional male pronouns with female ones, Dehnert said.

"I was surprised that it wasn't more difficult," she said. "Caesar is most often referred to as 'Caesar,' and secondarily by gender, but never without the context of 'Caesar.'"

"We laughed a great deal in the first week about occasionally saying 'She-sar' for 'Caesar,'" Dehnert said.

Working with other OSF company members, Dehnert replaced references to "men" or "man" with "souls" or "people."

But she decided to continue to have characters call Caesar "my lord" and the potential "king."

Dehnert's Caesar is a strong character in the play, continuing to haunt the conspirators after her death. Although the dictator is the first to die, she is the last to lie down in Dehnert's production.

"I don't believe Caesar is put to rest until all those connected directly to her death have died, and until another Caesar (Octavius) assumes fully the mantle of leadership," she said.

Dehnert also decided to cast other women in roles typically played by men, including some of Caesar's conspirators.

"There are significant other gender reversals as well, and they were very consciously placed by myself to constantly ensure that this was a mixed gender story," she said.

The play, which also features actors of several different races, is designed to comment on gender roles and racial stereotypes, Dehnert said.

"Opening up both gender and race in this staging is simply meant to allow us to see it as universal," she said.

Initially some people were confused about how the gender reversal would work, but Denhert said the reaction now appears to be positive, because the play is generating discussion.

"I'm excited that people are talking about it, thinking thoughts about it, arguing about it," she said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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