Julius Caesar is the first Shakespeare play I ever read, so perhaps it is understandable that I have a sentimental nostalgia for the script. As a bushy-haired 13 year old, it was the rhythm and melody of the lines that attracted me, from the first scene’s “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” to the iconic “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech. I also remember delighting in my entry into a heretofore secret adult club—now I too know the origin of “it was Greek to me” and other sayings that passed from Shakespeare’s lips to our own. So when I sat down to the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, I could not help but feel a rush of anticipation. Here at last, in the inaugural Shakespeare play at Harman Hall, are the words of Brutus and Mark Antony made flesh.
But it turns out that, much like the fickle townspeople of the play, Julius Caesar has been replaced in my affections. My memory of the plot ends abruptly after Mark Antony’s funeral speech, and no wonder. As I discovered last night, apparently what follows is a lot of military strategizing and battlefield suicides, which is so not my thing. If this production is to be believed, a lot of the play also consists of a horde of extras running in carefully choreographed patterns onstage while screaming at the top of their lungs. And, yes, this is the way of large scale, well-funded productions, but I don’t think I was in the mood for such a spectacle. The fault, dear reader, lies not with the production but with me. I would have rather seen something more intimate and sparse, and indeed, the moments I enjoyed most in the production are exactly that.
So let’s not focus on your grumpy theater reviewer who clearly needs to watch shows without expecting them to live up to the Magic of Her First Shakespeare Experience. (I should also sulkily note that I would have enjoyed the show more if I hadn’t been sitting in the nosebleed section.) Let’s concentrate instead on the handsomely mounted production. Starring Washington stalwart Andrew Long as Mark Antony, a nasally Scott Parkinson as Cassius, and a noble Tom Hammond as Brutus, the men mostly acquit themselves nicely. Long, in particular, brings an amusingly debauched touch to Mark Antony. Here is a lover and a fighter, a schemer and a speaker, all rolled up in one. Long is also one of the most natural speakers of Shakespeare that I have ever seen. The production got exceedingly lucky in landing him after the original actor was forced to drop out. (Long is also Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, which is playing in repertory with Caesar.) The ladies, Kim Martin-Cotton as Julius Caesar’s wife Calphurnia, and Nancy Rodriguez as Brutus’s wife Portia, appear long enough to fruitlessly beg their men to stay safe before disappearing. Caesar is menacingly played by Dan Kremer. He is perhaps more effective dead than alive; every time Caesar’s ghost appears, Kremer is whiter, sterner and more bent on silent revenge than before. The rest of the actors fade into a blur of togas, but they do alright. I have to give a shout-out to the ensemble actor who fell flat on his face while stampeding off the set, unsteadily got back up, and then roared “FREEEEDOM!!!” ala Braveheart before hurling himself into the wings.
The set is probably the strongest selling point of the night. Designed by James Noone, it is beautifully and gracefully rendered in a beautiful and graceful space. Noone has created a handsomely geometric series of steep staircases, oversized wooden doors, and balconies that seamlessly shift depending on the needs of the scene. The technical elements are honestly magnificent. The storm scene is frighteningly realistic; lighting designer Mark McCullough is to be commended for his lightning and sound designer Daniel Baker for his thunder. The lighting, in general, is blessedly interesting; spotlights are used to isolate plotters of Caesar’s murder, and the technique is repeated in crowd scenes to draw us into the reactions of one or two people at a time. The toga-heavy costumes by Jennifer Moeller are perfectly serviceable, although the battlefield gear of the varying factions should have been more differentiated. Director David Muse creates several artful stage pictures with his enormous cast, but like I said before, I prefer the smaller moments. My favorite scene of the night is between Brutus and his young servant Lucius (J. Garrett Brennan). Lucius plucks on an instrument while singing a lullaby to his weary master in the twilight before battle. Brennan has a surprisingly lovely singing voice, and the gentle magic of the moment deepens the tenor of the evening. Brutus’s wife may have disappeared, but the good senator still has someone to care for him.
There are other thoughtful moments in this production. A townsperson scrawls “Caesar” on one of the large doors at the start of the play; by the end of the night, “Brutus” has been both scrawled and erased on another. The last image of the play, of our fallen Caesar, is both haunting and hellish. Red flags unfurl around his ghostly yet strangely present body; even though Caesar is dead, he still looms over everything. It’s nice that the play goes out with a bang, considering the protracted blur of fight scenes that has come before it. I lost the thread of why the soldiers kept offing themselves; the poor things just began to give up and drop like flies. Perhaps they were distraught because their loved ones had bad seats in the audience.