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A CurtainUp Review
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet.— Marcus Brutus —
The Cast (Photo: Henry Grossman)
You have to hand it to Shana Cooper for mounting The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. The last major New York production of the classic play was at the Public's Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2017. The actor in the role of Julius Caesar bore a striking resemblance to the current occupant of the White House, igniting a furor in the media and a heated debate in theater circles.

Cooper's Julius Caesar steers clear of such caricature and controversy. Rather than trying to connect the play's eponymous character with a contemporary political figure, she returns the audience's gaze to the play itself and the constellation of characters that make this tragedy such an intriguing work.

Cooper staged an earlier incarnation of this production in February 2017 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) to favorable reviews. This new iteration features eight of the original cast members, nine new performers, and a reimagining of the piece. Although I didn't see the OSF outing, I can vouch that the current version is a well-oiled machine and that the cast has their iambic pentameters down pat.

Entering the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, one is greeted with Sibyl Wickersheimer's masculine-looking scenery made out of sheet rock and swaths of white fabric. As brightly lit by Christopher Akerlind, Rome is conjured up as a vibrant public space where folks of all classes collide and swap the news of the day. Raquel Barreto's costumes generally enhance the atmosphere with a blending of the fantastical with the somber.

The opening scene pulls one immediately into the story. It's the Feast of Lupercal, the ancient festival of fruitfulness and fertility, and citizens are milling about the streets. Almost everybody is celebrating the holiday, which is made more memorable due to Julius Caesar's martial triumph over Pompey in the civil wars.

Many directors cut this "Cobbler and Carpenter" scene to streamline their production. But when staged, as it is here, it keenly captures the dramatic tension between rule and misrule that permeates the play-at-large.

Since this chameleon-like production is not set in one historic moment, the play's famous anachronisms—the striking clock in Act 2 and Brutus' reading in his tent in Act 4 (the codex book with turning pages wasn't invented until the fourth century)—are hardly noticed here. Still, when one character glances at his cell phone to check the time at one crucial point in the drama, it gets a big laugh from the entire audience.

Most of the acting under Cooper's alert directing is fine. Rocco Sisto is well-cast in the titular role, his physical stature and regal bearing giving him immediate stage presence. Jordan Barbour as Mark Antony is a true politician and works the crowd splendidly in his funeral oration scene. And Brandon J. Dirden as the honorable Brutus projects his nobility persuasively.

The supporting actors are able as well. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart's Calphurnia is the epitome of the protective wife, even if her pleadings go tragically unheard by Caesar. Merritt Janson's Portia is convincing, especially when she argues with her conspirator-husband Brutus over why he has been absent from their bed, night after night, and unwilling to confide in her.

Although the Soothsayer, Cicero, and Artemidorous are typically played by men, Michelle Hurst, Emily Dorsch, and Juliana Sass, respectively, step into these parts with confidence and add a millennial flavor to the production.

The real dazzler is the ensemble, however. It can do more with its choreographic movements (by Erika Chong Shuch) than the key principals delivering their eloquent speeches. If arresting stage groupings and sequences are what you're after, you won't be disappointed here. Whether it's the festival and mob scenes early on or the later battle scenes at Philippi, the ensemble is riveting to watch as they thrust-and-parry their way to martial victory over the conspirators.

Among the many rethinkings of Julius Caesar over the years, thid version is by far the most striking when it comes to dynamically blocking its crowd and battle scenes. With due respect to Shakespeare's eloquent monologues, the group choreography is the thing in Theatre for a New Audience's new take.

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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Directed by Shana Cooper
Cast: Matthew Amendt (Cassius), Jordan Barbour (Mark Antony), Mark Bedard (Trebonius/Plebian/Cobbler/Ensemble), Liam Craig (Caius Ligarius/Lepidus/Plebeian/Ensemble), Ted Deasy (Metellus Cimber), Brandon J. Dirden (Marcus Brutus), Emily Dorsch (Cicero/Plebeian/Ensemble), Michelle Hurst (Soothsayer), Merritt Janson (Portia), Armando McClain (Cinna), Galen Molk (Cinna, the Poet/Servant/Others), Barret O'Brien (Decius Brutus), Julian Remulla (Lucius), Juliana Sass (Artemidorous), Rocco Sisto (Julius Caesar), Stephen M. Spencer (Caska), Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Calphurnia), Benjamin Bonenfant (Octavius Caesar).
Sets: Sibyl Wickersheimer
Costumes: Raquel Barreto(
Sound: Paul James Prendergast
Lighting: Christopher Akerlind
Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo
Stage Manager: Shane Schnetzler
Theatre for a New Audience at 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, Fort Greene neighborhood. Tickets: $90-$100. Phone 866.811.4111 or visit online,
From 3/17/19; opening 3/28/19; closing 4/28/19.
Running time: 2 hours; 40 minutes with intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/28/19.

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