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A CurtainUp Review
In repertory with X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation
You know the story: Set in ancient Rome, the play revolves around the conspiracy plot and assassination of Julius Caesar and the civil war that exploded in its aftermath. Shakespeare vividly dramatized the story, drawing on Plutarch's Lives as his primary source. But what's different about Shakespeare's treatment of history is that he didn't take sides on whether Caesar or the conspirators held the moral high ground. Ambiguity, in fact, permeates every nook and cranny of the play, and inevitably begs the question: Just who is the hero of Shakespeare first great tragedy?
Brain doesn't answer that question per se, but he does adroitly explore the shifting balance of political power in Rome right before— and after —Caesar's assassination. He also subtly brings out the dual idea that Caesar was both a flesh-and-blood human and a myth-in-process. Case in point: Following his brutal murder at the Capitol (cleverly dramatized by a profusion of long red ribbons), Caesar remains on stage as a Ghost, silently presiding over the proceedings.
While this producton successfully pulled in the audience (the matinee performance I attended was packed with families and teens), it doesn't fully synch the props and costumes with the play-at-large. In the opening scenes, the actors wear old world togas and sandals. As the play proceeds, however, several don modern military fatigues and combat boots and randomly shift from swords and daggers to guns and rifles for their warfare. It's as if the director couldn't decide just what era to set this Julius Caesar in.
That said, double time seems almost endemic with this political melodrama. Shakespeare himself scrambled his centuries when he penned this play, using the anachronism of a modern clock striking the hours in ancient Rome. Some have rationalized Shakespeare's slip-of-the-pen here as his signal that his newly-minted Julius Caesar would chime down the ages. And who knows.
The ultra-streamlined text did at times make it difficult to make sense of the play's frenzied action. This was especially likely in the later scenes when the civil war is in full blaze and three suicides (;Cassius, Titinius, and Brutus) occur one after another on the battlefield —collectively becoming the dramatic equivalent of a triple punch. My teen-age neighbor who accompanied me confirmed this when on exiting the theater telling me she liked the play but found some of battle scenes confusing.
No complaints with the acting ensemble, which led by Gabriel Lawrence (Julius Caesar), William Sturdivant (Caius Cassius), Jimonn Cole (Marcus Brutus), and Jonathan-David (Mark Antony). While I have seen Julius Caesar performed with more polish by more mature actors, this acting troupe infused real grit and gusto into their characters. Not for nothing has The Acting Company gained a reputation for making the classics weidely accessible. Indeed, what this production lacks in grandeur, it makes-up for in enthusiasm.
What is striking about Julius Caesar is how it can still speak to our culture today. Audiences today are likely to draw some immediate comparisons to the wheelings-and-dealings of some prominent American politicians (who will go nameless) who now hold elected office.
Staged in repertory with the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation (with the same ensemble), the two plays are presented as pointed commentaries on each other. Although each work stands alone, seeing both allows one to see Julius Caesar and Malcolm X, cheek by jowl, as rising stars under the magnifying glass of history.
Each play explores power, loyalty, and tragic ambition. But if you must choose one, I'd say go to Julius Caesar. You won't break your wallet or wear out your derriere by following the titular character from his triumph over Pompey. . . to his bloody murder at the Capitol . . . to his ghostly appearance to Brutus at Philippi. It's a bite-sized version of the Bard's masterpiece —-but you can chew on it forever.
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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Directed by Devin Brain
Cast: Gabriel Lawrence (Julius Caesar), William Sturdivant (Caius Cassius), Jimonn Cole (Marcus Brutus), Jonathan-David (Mark Antony), Joshua David Robinson (Casca/ Titinius), N'jameh Camara (Calpurnia), Chelsea Williams (Portia), Kevin Hillocks (Octavius), Austin Purnell (Soothsayer), and Tatiana Wechsler (Trebonius).
Sets: Lee Savage
Costume design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting design: Mary Louise Geiger
Music and sound design: Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes
Voice, speech, and text consultant: Elizabeth Smith
Fight direction: Orlando Pabotoy
Production stage manager: Lindsey Turteltaub
. The New Victory Theater, 209 West 42nd Street www.theactingcompany.org
From 3/15/17; closing 3/26/17.
Thursday through Saturday @ 8pm; Sunday matinee @ 3pm.
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/19/17.
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