The UW Theatre and Performance production of Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar begins with the character of Soothsayer (Katharine Sill) prophesying later evils to come as the Romans listen to her for guidance. “Hear her,” she tells the audience, referring to the women who have been denied a voice throughout history. However, what exactly the audience is meant to listen for gets lost in the noise of the play’s muddled messaging.
With footage drawn from the US Capitol riots and heavy-handed allusions to contemporary issues like climate change and TikTok, the play appears to be critiquing man’s potential for corruption, apathy, and evil. However, these ideas often manifest as generalizations that never fully crystallize into anything specific or substantive. Villager screams of “Lock her up!” are far from being inaccurate, but they lack weight when they’re being delivered by a non-descript, angry mob who we as audience members bear no attachment to.
The play’s wide-spanning scope sacrifices breadth for depth, and I often struggled to track the individual political plays being made. The bridge between past and present never feels fully fleshed out, and even the costume choices — which range from Adidas track pants to more traditional floral headbands — clash more than they cohere. It’s easy to pedagogically draw parallels between past patriarchal injustices and present ones, but simply pointing to societal wrongs offers little to our collective understanding of them.
It’s a real shame because the cast does their best to elevate the shaky source material. Mark Antony’s (Jaime Borromeo) famous “Lend me your ears” speech is a feat of sheer conviction, and Servilia (Anna Whitehead) injects some much-needed humour with her deadpan delivery. Lead Portia (Emily Radcliffe) evokes real pathos when she viscerally cries out for the loss of her child, and she and Calpurnia (Colleen McCaulay) are scene-stealers as they support one another through struggles of fertility and grief. They’re a rare illustration of the personal becoming political: when a woman’s worth and identity are exclusively crafted by her husband and sons, what happens to her identity when the men around her are taken away by force? Who does she stand behind?
Moments like these are what make the final product so tragic — because in Portia’s Julius Caesar, there are glimpses of what the play might have been beyond a socio-political slurry of surface-level ideas. They just never become the full picture.