If you follow foreign politics, you've heard of Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy. Berlusconi is a controversial figure, mostly because his media company, Fininvest, controls much of Italian TV. He's also charming, openly compares himself with Napoleon, and has very likely dealt with the mafia.
As staged by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and directed by Andrew Paul, a new production of Julius Caesar seems to make constant references to Berlusconi's Italy. The lines are Shakespeare's, but these Romans are very much modern Italian politicos: They wear three-piece suits and sunglasses, they whisper in ancient piazzas, and they run through the streets in crowds, chanting like soccer fanatics. Even Caesar's crest -- waved as a flag, worn as an army patch and dressing Caesar's body as a burial pall -- bears the colors of Italy: red, white and green. Add a bunch of cell-phones and cigarettes, and Berlusconi's cabinet would come dramatically to life.
And truly, this production is a splendid political mirror, magnificently acted by yet another perfect PICT cast. Larry John Meyers is Julius Caesar, the venerable warrior and god-like celebrity, commanding respect from the lowliest slave and the noblest senator. Meyers is, as ever, a beastly presence, laughing off the soothsayer's warning about the Ides of March. Truly, such a confident man cannot be defeated, only murdered.
And who would murder such a charismatic leader? Everybody, it turns out. But especially Cassius, the jealous rival. As Cassius, Richard McMillan is bug-eyed and shrieky, so maddened by envy that he probably practices assassination by stabbing his own servants. He enlists the help of Brutus (a silky Allen Gilmore). Then, against the backdrop of Elizabeth Atkinson's rockin' death-metal score, they stab Caesar to a gory pulp, aided by the entire Senate.
If only PICT had staged Caesar in Milan, they might have awed and enraged an Italian audience. Instead, it's staged in Pittsburgh, as part of the company's "The Price of Empire" series. The follow-up is Stuff Happens, David Hare's play about the Bush administration, and many of Caesar's actors are double-cast. It's been suggested that this Caesar is also a jab at the Bush administration. As the program notes explain, "Western culture of today shares with Elizabethan England the vision of itself as Rome." So there.
But the parallels don't line up. Around the world, leaders are assassinated, their friends claim innocence, factions are declared, and cities are wracked by deadly protest -- following the plot of Caesar with precision. But PICT's lavish production has nothing to do with the United States. No American statesmen have been killed, no civil war threatens. Caesar is the story of a coup, not bad intelligence and xenophobic invasions. The Ides of March was a traumatic date in history, but wholly different from Sept. 11. And in the end, as the traitors rush to stab themselves with short swords, the war abruptly resolves. Our war has years to go.
Applaud the production and its intent -- it's important to criticize empire -- but not all roads lead to Rome.
Julius Caesar continues through April 28. Charity Randall Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org