One might say Barry Kraft has done it all when it comes to Shakespeare. Kraft has acted in all thirty-eight of Shakespeare’s plays, with more than one hundred roles and eighty-four productions under his belt. How’s that for gusto? He’s also served as dramaturge at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for twenty-three seasons. Kraft last acted on the Marin Shakespeare stage in 2006, reigning supreme in the title role of King Lear. Now he gives his all as Julius Caesar, and although we love Kraft, this is not a particularly likable Caesar. He enters from above like a god, tossing laurel wreaths to the people below and presidential baby kissing as he descends into the masses. This Caesar is arrogant and almost snide. He’s also frail, and there’s no doubt this Caesar suffers from the “falling sickness,” as Kraft enters the stage beaded in sweat, his hand shaking and with portentous evidence of a fall swelling on his forehead. When on the stage, Kraft commands it. When he falls to the stage, his death is swift, cold and brutal, but it is at that epic moment—“Et tu Brute?”—that Kraft breaks our hearts. The subtle silence between Kraft and Jay Karnes (Brutus) in the seconds that follow these three famous words is a supreme moment in time.
Television actor Jay Karnes plays Brutus, and most importantly, he plays Brutus as a complicated, strong, thinking and flawed man with a conscience. While Karnes comes to Marin Shakespeare via Kraft and his acting affiliation at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the mid-1990’s, Karnes is best known for his seven season run as L.A.P.D. Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach on the FX drama The Shield, which ended its final season in November 2008. Film and other television credits apply (I saw him in an episode of House). His role as Brutus is memorable. Although Karnes is at times a bit rigid with the language, especially early on, it’s somehow okay, as his manner of pronounced speaking sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Karnes is magnanimous and one of the pretty people. He’s statuesque, offering a certain dignity and grace to his character, and his slight sneer—not quite like Elvis, but one can’t help but make the connection—is oddly appealing. Karnes is a seasoned actor who understands the subtle nuances necessary to convey Brutus’ stoic emotions and his troubled mind. It’s almost as though Karnes allows us to see into the mind of his character and feel the impossible quest of his conscience that battles with honoring his loyalty to Caesar and honoring his loyalty to the Republic. Unlike Caesar, we do like Brutus, only because Karnes somehow slips a sympathetic vein into this complicated Roman patrician, and as far as we can tell, Brutus is an honorable man. While the play is called Julius Caesar, the real drama is that of Brutus. Karnes captivates.
Jack Powell, who also plays Malvolio in this season’s worthy adaptation of Twelfth Night, takes the role of Cassius. Powell is a master of Shakespeare’s language, turning verse into perfectly intoned conversation. He’s seductive in soliloquy and chilling in the eye (or as the eye) of the storm. Just as we see a marked change in Brutus from the beginning to the end of the play, Cassius also markedly changes, and the change is confusing. It should be confusing, as we can’t quite grasp if Cassius is good or bad or both or neither. He, too, is a complicated character, and somehow, because of his eventual love and loyalty to Brutus (at least insofar as Powell plays Cassius), we end up at the very least not hating him, but rather trying to understand him and his motivations. In this, Powell provokes thought, and his character will no doubt be the topic of conversation after the show. I spoke briefly with Powell at the cast party following opening night and asked him about his motivation for the change in his character, from sinister to somehow right in the end. Powell told me that after the death of Caesar, Cassius becomes depressed; he gives up. He wants to die, and when Cassius does slay himself in Act Five, it’s not the effect of his “best friend” being “slain” on the battlefield, but it was an already present wish that was just waiting on the act to make it complete. I’ve yet to wrap my head around this interpretation, and I’m somewhat glad I didn’t gather it from Powell’s performance, as I don’t quite see how it fits, but again, Cassius is a complicated character. Powell proves that on and off the stage.
Others also wow. Cat Thompson as Brutus’ wife, Portia, is strong, striking and seductive and just the kind of woman who would voluntarily stab herself in the thigh and swallow hot coals. William Elsman as Mark Antony, whether in his skivvies, a toga or a uniform, delivers a commando commanding performance throughout. Again, here’s a character who markedly changes. Elsman proves one hell of an orator as he woos the plebeians and audience with his gripping “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”, then displays a vicious man full of ambition, foreshadowing the tumult that follows the end of Act Five. Just have a read of Antony and Cleopatra to know what I mean.
Stephen Klum as Casca is sarcastic, flamboyant and corrupt and just plain fun for the eye and ear. Klum’s depiction has a somewhat comedic bent, though it’s the type of funny that leaves you unsettled. In speaking, “he puts on this tardy form,” a sort of snooty rudeness in tone, lingering the tail end of his words. He comes across as bitter and gossipy and unstable with a hint of vicious to his nature. He’s also the first to stab Caesar, and in the back, to boot. Klum’s portrayal supports this act.
The players are appropriately draped in classic togas, baring their toes in strapping sandals. And when soldiers, the actors are vibrant in their Roman centurion helmets and breastplates. Don’t be alarmed when Elsman enters at the start of the play in what can best be described as a green silken diaper. It took me some time to realize that costume designer Claire Townsend swaddles Elsman in this revealing ensemble because his Antony and other noble youths are running through the streets of Rome for the Lupercalia festival, which honors Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. The festival, which takes place on February 15, is an important marker of time in the play, letting us know that a solid month of thought passes before Brutus agrees to and engages in the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March.
Mark Robinson’s set design focuses on the classical elements of symmetry, balance and order with a left stage to right stage mirror image stone façade that features entrances and stairways, marble busts, and a sense of the eternal. And at the top of the stairs is a promontory on which orations are made and wreaths thrown, topped with the image of the Capitoline wolf and the SPQR for the Senatus Populusque Romanus.
Billie Cox offers thoughtful and exciting sound design with her original score. Scenes of flourish are accompanied by epic music that parallel the silver screen, while more thoughtful intricacy announces the appearance of Caesar’s ghost, who in this production appears to Brutus three times instead of Shakespeare’s curtain call for one. Cox conjures constant and measured strings in an eerie G against an F#, followed by an F, and then a C#. This harmony, which was known as the “Diabolus in Musica” in ancient times, creates a cacophony of discord upon which the ghost of Caesar walks.
Ellen Brooks offers this production’s lighting design, which works, although it had the opportunity to be more remarkable. Lightning flashes and appropriate fade in and outs occur, but Brooks’ use of pretty red lighting after death scenes doesn’t go far enough. For the brutal, animalistic intensity assigned to the gory assassination of Caesar as well as poor Cinna the Poet (Lucas McClure plays both Cinnas in this production), and even the stoic suicides of Cassius and Brutus, I can’t help but want a Shining-like flood of deep red light overtaking the stage. A rosy glow upstage just doesn’t make the cut.
The cast seems to lose some of their gusto in Act Five, beginning with a relatively anticlimactic fight scene (fight direction by Brian Herndon). And they never seem to get the momentum back to that exhilarating level of the previous four Acts. Opening night curse? Perhaps. If these players—and director Robert Currier included—can figure out a way to keep that excitement flowing and the audience engaged, there’s no reason why the amphitheatre shouldn’t burst to their feet for the proverbial curtain calls.
From beginning to almost end, this production engages, shocks and confounds. Like good theatre should, this show takes you out of your seat, out of your life, and into the world of the play. It’s by far the most spectacular production I’ve seen on the Marin Shakespeare Company’s stage.