For Jay Parks, it's part of the territory these days. When people learn the role he is playing in "Julius Caesar," many of them pipe up with one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "Et tu, Brute?" (It translates to "Even you, Brutus?")
"I usually answer, 'Yep, me too,' " Parks says. "Sometimes I answer in Latin, which is when people's eyes glaze over and the subject turns to local weather."
Parks has waited for years for the chance to participate in a Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of the play, which opens today. We caught up with him via email to talk about the production.
Question: For those who aren't familiar, give a brief synopsis.
Answer: Julius Caesar, victorious in war, returns to Rome as a conquering hero, beloved by the populace. When the Roman senators see the reaction — including Mark Antony attempting three times to crown him as a king — some take this as a threat to Rome. Cassius in particular has serious misgivings about Caesar's ambition.
However, the popularity that Julius Caesar enjoys makes any plot to overthrow him particularly difficult. To offset Caesar's support base, Cassius makes overtures to Marcus Brutus, a nobleman known for his integrity and idealism; if Brutus were to support it, a conspiracy would seem more palatable to the citizens of Rome. The conflict of the play centers around the decision the conspirators make, and its aftermath.
Tell us a little about director Erica Riggs' concept and setting for the play.
Our "Julius Caesar" is set in the early 1960s. As was Rome in 44 BC, it is a time marked by social and political upheaval. The production addresses the idea of what it means to "live free," and accentuates the tensions between the post-war establishment and a growing civil rights movement. The conflict between the military hero, Julius Caesar, and the established power of the democratic senate cuts to the core: Does immense popularity feed ambition? Does ambition breed a tyrant? What makes for good government? Our setting places these questions in a context more familiar to today's audience.
What have you learned about Brutus since you've dived into this character?
Brutus is a man who expects quite a lot from people. His sense of honor and idealism set a very high bar for others to live up to. At the same time, he tends to underestimate the potential in others to act in a way that meets the standard to which he holds himself. Brutus dismisses Mark Antony, for example, as inconsequential: "... given to sport, to wildness, and much company."
Brutus' inability to recognize Antony's ability to sway the passion of the Roman public is a critical error that endangers the health of the Roman democracy that Brutus most dearly wants to preserve and protect.
In this production, Cassius is a woman. Tell us about that.
When you have an actor like Gabriela Lawson (Cassius), you want to cast her in as juicy of a role as you are able! Cassius as a woman puts a very interesting twist on that character's misgivings about the fitness of Caesar to rule. Does Cassius sense a bit of the glass ceiling between her own senate career and the top rung of government? The relationships Cassius has with the other senators (especially Brutus) have a much different color when she is the exception to the "boys-only club." The casting choice is so strong, that I'm not sure I'll look favorably at the play with a male Cassius after this production.
Do you think "Julius Caesar" has something to say about politics today?
For better or worse, the questions the play raises are still around today and always have been. We still question the motives of those seeking power. As a public, we are still swayed by charisma, passion and vitality. Through the media, we microscopically analyze the strengths and weakness of those who would seek to represent us. Much like Brutus, we idealistically want to believe that those in office have our best interests at heart. Sometimes, like Brutus, we are disappointed in those hopes.
Anything else you would like to add?
Only that I've been waiting for several years to have some part in a WSF production of "Julius Caesar." We have an exceptionally strong cast, featuring Rick Adamson (Caesar), Gabriela Lawson (Cassius), Mohammad Shehata (Antony), Michael Peterson (Casca), and Bridget Martin (Portia). Audiences will recognize many more local favorites in other parts, as well. I hope audiences will appreciate seeing our production as much as I have appreciated the opportunity to act it.
"Julius Caesar," 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 14 at WSF Stage in Woodward Park. Free, but $10 reserved seats available; park's car-entrance fee applies.
Details: woodwardshakespeare.org, (559) 927-3485.
For an extended interview with Jay Parks, go to fresnobeehive.com.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.