Alexandra Ralph has acted in Julius Caesar before. Last time, however, she played a “traditional female role.” This time, the second year UNLV MFA student is cast as Roman senator Cassius, one of the meatiest roles in the tragedy.
“I love it!” Ralph says about playing a murderous mastermind. “These big, gorgeous speeches about honor, ambition, pride—women don’t get a lot of those in Shakespeare. Women experience these emotions, too.”
Ralph says the Nevada Conservatory Theatre production’s all-female cast takes nothing away from the story. But it does add something important: “I think it acknowledges that women have a place in political power struggles and that they can just as believably fight and die for a cause as a man could,” Ralph says.
Aside from the casting choices, Julius Caesar is especially timely in our current political climate. Quick synopsis: The plot follows loyal Brutus, who helps assassinate his friend Julius Caesar in a misguided attempt to save the Roman republic and prevent a dictatorship (hence the famous saying, “Et tu, Brute?”).
It’s a cautionary tale for those who are disturbed by the antics of whatever party holds the White House. This summer, a New York City production drew protests and outrage because the title character resembled Donald Trump.“This play is timely in every single generation,” director Beth Lopes says. “It really is about power; democracy versus tyranny; manipulating the public for your own purposes. … [The idea that] you can’t fight injustice with injustice is a really interesting lens [through which] to look at the play.”
Lopes says that the most challenging part of adapting Julius Caesar was deciding what role gender should play. Should they change the pronouns so the roles are female? Or should the women pretend to be males? Ultimately, the creative team decided on a sort of stage androgyny. The pronouns will remain masculine even though the actors will not be playing men.
“Gender, in a way, has become irrelevant in the world of the play,” Lopes says, explaining that actors are simply telling the story and bringing their unique interpretations, as any actor would. “Once we get into the rehearsal room, we often forget we’re doing an all-female production.”
Although it’s tempting to assume that this era has the monopoly on gender-bending fun, it wasn’t actually so rigid in Shakespeare’s time. Back then, it was common for males to cross-dress for female roles, since women were often restricted from the stage. In Restoration England, women assumed the stage dressed as men in “pants roles.”
“For us to venture into an entire female cast is not unusual,” says NCT Executive Director Norma Saldivar, who has worked on all-female Shakespeare plays in the past. “It’s really exciting to hear the language in a different way, see the relationships with a slightly different perspective. This is a wonderful time where values are changing and the way we see storytelling is challenged. It’s great for us to explore that on our own stages.”
Ultimately, Saldivar hopes that the question of gender will fall away as the audiences watches the story unfolds: “It’s swift; it moves; it’s exciting.”
Julius Caesar March 9-25, days & times vary, $15-$17. UNLV’s Alta Ham Fine Arts Black Box Theater, 702-895-2787.