Sunday, January 6, 2013

Julius Caesar at the American Shakespeare Center

Raise your hand if you studied Julius Caesar in high school.

Now, raise your hand if when you studied Julius Caesar in high school you found it mind-numbing and boring.

If ever one of William Shakespeare's plays cried out to be seen on the stage rather than read on the page it's Julius Caesar.   Yes, it contains some of the most beautiful speeches that Shakespeare ever wrote.   The use of rhetoric and phrasing to make political and linguistic points is masterful.    On the page, Julius Caesar can feel stilted with many a Roman character, Publican and Plebeian to keep straight.   The American Shakespeare Center's inaugural production of its ninth Actors' Renaissance Season proves that a dynamic and clear production that emphasizes not only the language but the heart and soul of its characters is the best way to bring Julius Caesar alive for a twenty-first century audience.

For nine seasons now, the American Shakespeare Center has presented a winter season that gives their talented acting troupe the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rehearsal conditions of William Shakespeare's time.   There are no directors or designers.   The actors themselves are responsible for choosing costumes and props from existing stock.  The rehearsal process is reduced to a matter of days.   The result is lively theater that energizes both the actors and the audience.   Julius Caesar becomes a brisk two hours traffic upon the stage that uses the Renaissance staging conditions of the Blackfriar's Playhouse to create a dynamic theatrical experience.

Having the actors choose their own costumes occasionally creates a not quite cohesive stage picture.  Here the audience will find a mixture of contemporary dress with a bit of togas and tunics sprinkled about.   However, there are good choices of color to help the audience keep track of certain groups.   Caesar, his wife and two senators are in white.  Brutus, Cassius and the conspirators in black and grey.   The common folk at Caesar's funeral don workman's denim blue.   Mark Antony wears a military uniform that hints at the revolutionary Che Guevara, man of the common people.

Julius Caesar, drawn from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, is really the tale of three men Brutus, Cassius and Antony.  Julius Caesar, the title character is a larger than life presence whose rise to dictator and subsequent assassination indelibly affects them all.   Benjamin Curns commands the stage as Caesar in his brief scenes.  His Caesar is the consummate politician combined with a bit of mob boss polished off with a touch of rock star for good measure.  When he dies, it is not just Shakespeare's language that keeps Caesar indelibly near the center of the story, but the memory of Mr. Curns' charismatic dictator.

The true central character of the play is the noble Marcus Brutus.  Rene Thornton, Jr.'s Brutus begins as a close ally of Caesar, yet he is clearly troubled by the demise of the Roman Republic.   The play's emotional arc centers on Brutus as he is reluctantly persuaded to take a crucial role in Caesar's assassination.  Mr. Thornton's embrace of Brutus' conflicts as he is first convinced that murdering Caesar is for Rome's greater good and then transitions to confident orator at the funeral attempting to  control the reaction of the ordinary people is quite masterful.   Throughout Brutus' fall from grace Mr. Thornton manages to keep Brutus a sympathetic character, truly worthy of Antony's eulogy as the noblest Roman of them all.

Not so, Sarah Fallon's Caius Cassius.   Her Cassius is the driving force behind the conspiracy from the beginning of the play.   By showing Cassius' troubled thoughts as Caesar solidifies his power makes Cassius somewhat sympathetic.   Ms. Fallon gives Cassius a single-minded focus, the destruction of Caesar for the good of the Republic.   In her capable, fiery hands Cassius never doubts that Caesar's death is the best course for Rome.

Gregory Jon Phelps is rock steady as Mark Antony.  He is Caesar's lieutenant, a right hand man who uses language skillfully to manipulate the reactions of people, whether saving his own life in the wake of Caesar's assassination or convincing Brutus to let him speak at Caesar's funeral, a decision which leads to fatal consequences for the assassination conspirators.  The famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" funeral speech can be bombastic and overblown in the wrong actor's delivery.   Mr. Phelps starts small and uses pointed emphasis rather than rage to win over the Roman mob.  While one might wish for a bit more of a rousing climax to Antony's oratory, Mr. Phelps creates an Antony who is seems a natural rhetorical successor to Caesar and foreshadows the historical problems that Antony's popularity would cause his fellow triumvirs, Octavius Caesar and Aemilius Lepidus.

The American Shakespeare Center's Actors' Renaissance Season is off to a very strong start with a fast-paced lively production of Julius Caesar.   It is well worth making the trip to the Shenandoah Valley for terrific classical theater this winter.

William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, William Wycherley's The Country Wife and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country through April 4, 2013.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit


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