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Julius Caesar and Teddy Ferrara have tactical issues

Chicago Shakespeare and Goodman Theatre put on plays about power struggles.

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Street vendors hawk hot dogs and novelties in a public square. Revelers in jeans snap pictures of one another with their smartphones, drink "Victory Beer," and generally look like they're headed for a football game. They're so psyched that they start in doing a line dance, country-western style. A streamer overhead reads Veni Vidi Vici Motherf*ers.

It's a party in the modern American mode.

Everything about the opening moments of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Julius Caesar indicates that director Jonathan Munby wants us to understand the Bard's tragedy of ancient Rome not just in contemporary terms, but, specifically, in terms of life as it's lived right now in these digitized, tchotchkefied, uncouth United States.

The indications change quickly, however. A cop shows up and—in a gesture that would be frowned upon at, say, Taste of Chicago—shoots into the air to get the crowd's attention. When a woman appears, dressed in mourning and wearing a soldier's photo on a string around her neck, she's treated brutally by the throng—a gross contravention of the current popular reverence for all things veteran. (Looking back, it occurs to me that the picture may be meant to represent Pompey, whose defeat at Caesar's hands is the reason for the festivities—which would, I guess, make the woman Pompey's widow. If that's Munby's extratextual conceit, though, it sure isn't communicated by his staging.)

Strangest of all, Caesar's triumphal entrance is framed as an amalgam of pop savvy (an ad invites us to visit caesarforall.com) and National Socialist pomp (long red banners, emblazoned with an eagle and hung from pillars that could've been designed by Albert Speer). Clearly, we're not in Kansas anymore, but where we are is anybody's guess.

The signs and signifiers, in short, point every which way. Some, like the proto-neo-pseudofascist images, actually tie themselves up in knots. And they continue to do so throughout the show. I've always suspected that some directors update Shakespeare just so they can get a louder bang out of the battle scenes, and Munby tends to validate that theory with heavy pyrotechnics, bursts of automatic gunfire, and even paratroopers descending from the sky. Yet he goes bizarrely old-school when it comes to the event that sets off all this mayhem: the assassination of Caesar. Brutus and his confederates use knives that they draw, absurdly, from shoulder holsters worn under their suits.

All this is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, one being that Julius Caesar is already a fascinating piece of work—a tale of compellingly ambiguous characters whose deadly collision becomes all the more awful for being unavoidable. Shakespeare's Caesar is at once outsize and touchy; his Marc Antony, both loyal and conniving; his Brutus, deeply principled and insufferably arrogant. A director could do worse than just stand back a bit and let them do what they do.

But Munby's approach is also disappointing because there really is a message for our times in the play, and he lets it get lost in all his high-concept mucking about. One of the great motifs (and running gags) of Julius Caesar concerns how easy it is to manipulate the people. First the Roman common folk idolize Pompey, then they're ready to crown Caesar king, then Brutus convinces them that Caesar's ambitions would've destroyed the republic, and finally Antony turns Caesar into a martyr. Inasmuch as a recent study carried out by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institute of Medicine shows that the Tea Party was never anything but a cat's-paw of the Koch brothers and Big Tobacco, what the Bard has to say about human suggestibility is worth keeping in mind.

A woman fainted near the end of Teddy Ferrara, the new play by Christopher Shinn, the night I saw it at Goodman Theatre. She turned out to be OK, but the performance had to stop, of course, while first the Goodman staff and then some Chicago firemen tended to her. For a time afterward, I thought that this interruption must be the reason why the show itself seemed to grow faint as it went on. Now I think otherwise.

Teddy Ferrara is inspired by the case of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide in 2010, soon after being humiliated by a webcam-wielding roommate. Shinn has turned the real-life facts inside out, however. Where Clementi's been characterized as a quiet soul, just beginning to inch his way out of the closet, Shinn's Ferrara produces his own webcam events, masturbating for the pleasure of an avid and apparently large audience. His on-campus death triggers a power struggle among various factions at a "large state university," each of which wants to own Teddy's narrative.

It's a clever setup, and Shinn makes smart use of it up to a point. The factions' battle for hearts, minds, and face time unfolds like a highly refined version of the one between Brutus and Antony. Competitors maneuver pitilessly, and the losers are trounced decisively. Shinn goes a long way toward showing how social media up the stakes, how even interest groups with ostensibly noble goals can play a cynical game, and how little the truth—or, God forbid, compassion—may have to do with any of it.

Still, the drama ends up pretty much where you'd expect, fainting spells notwithstanding. Like some of the people it depicts, Teddy Ferrara is a little too good about setting out its agenda and checking off each item in turn.

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