In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the plot is simple. Julius Caesar is an ambitious political leader who wishes to become emperor of Rome. A soothsayer warns him to beware the Ides of March, but Caesar disregards this warning and a group of conspirators assassinate Caesar on this date. The conspirators are eventually defeated by friends of Caesar, after which Rome falls into a state of civil war.
While the plot is simple, the characters are complex. The play’s title character speaks less than one hundred and fifty lines and is assassinated at the start of Act 3, yet he must somehow remain present and powerful from beginning to end. Matt Gottlieb masterfully takes on the title role. His Caesar is insightful and deserving of our respect and remembrance; he is noble in character, and yes, he is ambitious. But Gottlieb is not quite the JuliusCentric Caesar that led Harold Bloom to refer to him as “the northern star of his world.” Perhaps that’s why it’s difficult to not have complete and utter sympathy for this character when he is so brutally stricken down by his friends, his Romans, and his countrymen.
Michael Ganio’s set design is simple: the Festival Glen’s wooden construction—also used in this season’s currently running A Midsummer Night’s Dream—is ordained with crimson columns and curtains and bits of gold leaf, offering function and signification over ornate form. B. Modern’s costume design is contemporary, with political figures dressed in suits splashed with a drape hanging loosely over their shoulders and trailing behind. The plebeians are rough and tumble in appearance and their color palette an appropriate blur of conformity. Rodolfo Ortega underscores their mob mentality with his composition of intense metal music signifying blurred chaos and the extreme.
Not so simple is York Kennedy’s brilliant lighting design, creating blinding storms and chaotic battle scenes. He even lights up the forest behind the stage in response to Shakespeare’s words announcing the light of day. Kennedy creates mood, excitement, and brings power to this play’s tragic drama.
Other stars surround Gottlieb. Scott Wentworth is amazingly strong as Brutus. He walks heavily upon the stage as a tragic, stoic, troubled and torn man who, as far as we know, is noble in his motives and is a friend first and foremost to the Roman Republic. But we can’t forget that he is also an assassin who achieves this status by his own will. Director John Sipes stages Brutus’ initial interaction with the other main conspirators—Cassius and Casca—with fascinating subtlety. David A. Moss as the gossipy, brutal and blunt Casca (David A. Moss) sits down center stage in a hazy cloud of cigarette smoke with Cassius (Chris Butler), convincing Wentworth that Caesar is indeed dangerously ambitious and must therefore be undone. Wentworth paces behind the men, his judgment clouded by the encircling smoke.
The next scene with Butler and Moss continues in a haze of thick fog accompanied by sound designer Norman Kern’s ominous and booming thunderstorm. It is during Butler’s first soliloquy that we realize his presence is a gift to this stage, and that his character is far left of sinister. Butler’s accent takes on a slight southern bent, and his lines sometimes sound preachy and melodic, but this works well with his dangerous charisma, his Joker smile, his manipulative sarcasm, and the pure and utter joy he gets out of gathering his flock and conspiring to commit murder. If not for Cassius’ self-interest, he would be an Iago, reveling in the manipulation and destruction of others for the sake of we know not what. But again, the characters are complex, and we don’t always despise Cassius. Frankly, we can’t, because Butler’s just that good.
“But the fault…is not in our stars.” While Butler, Gottlieb, Wentworth and Moss consistently shine in their roles, others are uneven or even ordinary, and while the death of Caesar is monumental and heartbreaking, some of the lesser scenes in the play are sluggish. Jonathan David Visser (Marc Antony) is larger than life in his soliloquy as he roars “havoc” after the death of Caesar. He proves himself a skilled orator as he seduces the plebeians’ ears with his famed “Friends, Romans, and countrymen…” monologue, but other times Visser is flat, lacks zest, and is not at all a Marc Antony. Lanise Antoine Shelley, who plays Brutus’ wife, Portia, is strong yet feminine, robust even on her knees, and passionately beautiful, while Emily Kitchens as Caesar’s wife Calphurnia is unremarkable outside of being awkward and too young for her Caesar. Aldo Billingslea is perfectly frightening as he lurches through the audience like the Swamp Thing to warn Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March,” but he later steps onstage and seems quite normal and something of a scrappy Rastafarian.
But the murder of poor Cinna the poet (Zarif Kabier Sadiqi) is violent and gruesome and the set design at that moment screams that the Roman Republic has gone to fiery hell. John Sipes’ fight direction and battle scenes are brilliant and breathtaking, and the fickle whimsy of the plebeians is tragically comical. And while the central moment in the play—the assassination of Caesar—is gripping and will leave your breath inside your body until mighty Caesar falls, it is the complexity of Brutus—his stumble and fall from grace—that remains the the tragic draw of Julius Caesar.