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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Directors have long brought new interpretations to Shakespeare's plays, and Julius Caesar is no exception. Recently the Royal Shakespeare's touring production featured a very satisfying all-Black cast (Curtainup's Review ). Phyllicia Lloyd proved that while long viewed as the Bard's most manly play, Julius Caesar became thrillingly fresh with an all-female cast (Curtainup's Review in London and in New York ).
Like these departures from more traditional mountings, Tina Packer's minimalist casting, set and costume concept makes for a potent, easy to follow two hours. She uses just seven actors (6 males, 1 female) to show the Roman Senators turning against the brave and revered General because they see his ambition turning him into a dictator likely to undo their country's hard won freedom. Their method: Betrayal and a bloody assassination. The consequences: Lots of empire-building intrigue and bloodshed.
But though shorter by more than half an hour than traditional productions, all the lines you probably first heard during high school senior English are in place: "Beware the ides of March," "Et tu, Brute?," "Friends, Romans and Countrymen." All are delivered with emotional eloquence and welcome clarity.
Seeing so few actors play some 40 character, with constant shifts between their main roles and various minor characters (citizens, thugs, soldiers, servants) may sound confusing. But no such worries with Packer's everything-out-in-the-open, easy to follow direction.
My young companion had never seen this or any other Shakespeare play. He had no problem keeping the various characters sorted out and accepting the sparsely populated street and battle scenes as actually being more crowded. For me, the multiple casting , combined with the many stylized touches, also worked. Thanks to Kristina Tollefson's simple, non-period specific costumes — the ensemble's uniform outfit consists of vaguely military looking black pants and grey T-shirts. Easily donned different colored cloths serve as togas that clarify who's side the wearer is on.
Ryan McGettigan's scenic design is also simple yet effective. Mesh hangings up stage create a suggestion of Roman columns and also to front a walkway for some dual front and upstage action. Instead of props, the actors themselves are often used to create powerful visual images. At times movement director Victoria Carraro and sound designer Britt Sandusky and lighting designer Matthew Miller animate this human scenery to illustrate and enliven a monologue. Though this sight and sound business is occasionally a bit excessive, this is a minor quibble since the actors handle it all so elegantly and their performances overall are strong enough to keep the audience fully engaged.
Nigel Gore inhabits the military hero but doomed head of state with a blend of imperiousness and humanity; and bravo, for not over-emoting his demise.
Eric Tucker's Brutus epitomizes the complexities of the man who made "et tu, Brute" the watchword for a not to be trusted friend. Jason Asprey's fierce Cassius is aptly persuasive in getting Brutus to join him and the other conspirators wanting kill rather than hail Ceasar.
James Udom does full justice to Antony's impassioned eulogy for Caesar. Kristin Wold, not only plays Caesar Brutus's wives Calpurnia and Portia but also his servant Lucius. She has one especially nifty quick switch turn as a shockingly stabbed Portia must make a quick return as Lucius. (When not playing all these parts, the versatile Wold appears on this same stage in her solo performance as Shakespeare's wife in Shakespeare's Will).
Despite the minimalist concept, it's the staging that makes this one of the most interesting Julius Caesars I've ever seen. The use of dance movements to enhance and dramatize the lengthier monologues, the smooth blackouts and the evocative lighting — especially the way those mesh columns turn blood red after Caesar's death — all add to the dramatic impact. And of course there's the final battle scene and its chilling outcome with its reminders of more recent and equally poorly planned fights and their dire aftermaths.