Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Reviews: Nashville Shakespeare Festival's JULIUS CAESAR Is Startling and Stunning

With taut, focused direction by Beki Baker and what is arguably the finest cast of actors to be assembled on a Nashville stage in recent memory, Nashville Shakespeare Festival heats winter up to a fever pitch with its remarkable production of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's timeless-and very timely-tragedy rife with unbridled ambition, conspiratorial plotting, revenge and deception.

Starring legendary NFL running back Eddie George, late of the Tennessee Titans, in the title role-we can happily report that the imposing George makes an impressive Shakespearean debut, his regal bearing is perfectly suited to the Roman dictator and his confident performance is nothing short of awe-inspiring-the production features a startlingly deep, and equally awesome, bench of players giving the leading man ample support.

When you open the show's playbill and read the names Brian Webb Russell, David Compton, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, Jon Royal, Denice Hicks, Robyn Berg, Will Sevier, et al, you are assured of a finely acted dramatic tragedy; add to that list the names of such fine younger actors as Matthew Raich, Caleb Pritchett, Daniel Hackman, Elizabeth Walsh and Maya Abram (her performance is stunning, particularly considering that she is a high school senior; prediction: she will go far) and the presence of the beautiful Tamira A. Henry as Caesar's adoring wife Calpurnia, you are guaranteed a memorable night of theater, one in which you are plunged headlong into the conspiracy playing out before you and which will, most certainly, transform and transport you to ancient Rome while underscoring the political intrigue that permeates our own 21st century.

The play's timeliness becomes all the more apparent as the action unfolds when a cadre of Roman politicians first meet to foment rebellion and to plot the assassination of the emperor Julius Caesar, who is viewed by most as a magnanimous rule, but feared by many to be an iron-fisted despot (sound familiar, students of the contemporary world political milieu?). As the assassins' plans develop and is set into motion, the power of Beki Baker's direction becomes more apparent: She moves the play's action along at a fluid pace, each scene dovetailing seamlessly into the next, Shakespeare's Elizabethan language interpreted with fiery grace and amazing skill by her talented band of actors. As a result, what ensues is eminently easy to follow, making NSF's Julius Caesar the perfect entre for the uninitiated-or intimidated- into the complete canon of the Bard's works.

NSF's adaptation of Julius Caesar, though uncredited (Scott Baker, the husband of the director, is the production's dramaturg) is beautifully edited, streamlining the story to an accessible two hours of impressive storytelling. With that trimming and excising, what remains is a thoroughly involving tale of the political machinations of Caesar's rivals and the personal travails of the men who bring down the dictator-in addition to his loyal supporters, most notably Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, his adopted son-and the civil war which quickly follows the actions that transpire on the fateful "Ides of March."

The story is clearly told and remarkably developed (perhaps in spite of the editing,  although because of it) and is so compellingly acted that you cannot help but be moved by the performances onstage, transfixed by the power of an actor (or actors) at the height of their game.

The aforementioned George and Henry make for an impressive pair, the leaders of a powerful, burgeoning political dynasty; each gives a richly nuanced performance that seems free from stagey artifice and their interactions are deeply felt and relevant.

Russell gives an extraordinary reading of Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all," displaying the character's inner turmoil to perfection, showing us every dimension of his superb talents and reiterating Brutus' conflicting emotions and motivations. Clearly, Shakespeare could have easily titled his work The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, since he is the central figure in the play (Caesar, in reality, is more of a featured player in the work, although it is his life and death that provide the basis for the piece and he is clearly the "biggest name" among the lot), and Russell gives him his due.

However, it is David Compton's vividly mind-altering portrayal of Cassius that will live in your memory for hours (maybe even days or months) after the play's figurative curtain falls. His performance is nothing short of amazing-although overused, it's the best descriptor of his achievements in this play-and he adds another facet to an already significant list of skills and stage accomplishments. Emotionally naked, revealing the most horrific personal torments, Compton's Cassius is pitch-perfect.

Baker's obvious skill in casting is apparent throughout, as is her ability to direct this top-flight crew of actors. Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, who's had an terrific year onstage in roles ranging from Jason (in Nashville Children's Theatre's Jason and the Golden Fleece) to Chris Keller (in Tennessee Repertory Theatre's All My Sons), again proves himself one of the most noteworthy names in local and regional theater. His heroic and virile, yet deeply human, Mark Antony is appealing and accessible: at one moment, Antony belches when he is roused from sleep after a night of drinking and excess, while at another he is heartbreaking in his obvious grief. Credit is due Pasto-Crosby for walking a fine line while creating a startling characterization, and his delivery of the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" soliloquy is filled with richly emotional power.

Matthew Raich, last seen in NSF's Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet, makes a noteworthy return to the stage in a quartet of roles, each of which he performs admirably, although he is apt to best be remembered as the haughty and arrogant Octavius, the likely successor to Caesar's vanquished political possibilities. Raich, not long out of David Lipscomb University's growing theater program, has stage presence to spare which he utilizes to his greatest potential.

Among the clutch of impressive supporting players, Jon Royal and Denice Hicks (she's the artistic director for Nashville Shakespeare Festival and its most public "face") give exquisitely and finely tuned readings of their various characters, and Robyn Berg gives a strong performance as Brutus' long-suffering and supportive wife, Portia.

Caleb Pritchett, a senior at Lipscomb University, shows that he is adept at taking on several minor characters, including Brutus' faithful manservant Lucius, whose plaintive singing on the battlefield of Phillipi provides a poignant, sentimental counterpoint to the militaristic musical score provided by composer Tom McBryde.

Overall, NSF's Julius Caesar is presented with an impressive aesthetic, starting with Baker's complete understanding of the work and its relevance to the 21st century, and continuing through the excellent design work and attention to detail that resonates throughout.

The production is beautifully designed by Jonathan Hammel, of MadeFirst, who provides the ideal backdrop for the play's action with his set design, and June Kingsbury's costume designs clothe the actors in the perfect raiments for their onstage lives. But it could well be Anne Willingham's lighting design that do most of the heavy lifting, design-wise, in this visually compelling production.

David Wilkerson deserves praise for his superb fight choreography, a much-needed element in this work that plays out on the steps of the Roman Senate as Caesar is assassinated and on the fields of battle upon which the rival armies wage their efforts to gain control of Rome.

- Julius Caesar. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Beki Baker. Presented by Nashville Shakespeare Festival at Belmont University's Troutt Theatre, Nashville. Through January 29. For further details, go to

Pictured: Brian Webb Russell, Eddie George and Eric D. Pasto-Crosby/photo by Jeff Frazier

Troy Castellano And McNamaras Irish Pub & Restaurant To Host 2nd Annual Holiday Fundra Photo
Middle Tennessee-based Instruments For Education (IFE) will host its 2nd annual holiday fundraiser and instrument drive raising money and collecting musical instrument donations for Nashville-area students, teachers, and school classrooms.

Voting Now Open For The 2022 BroadwayWorld Nashville Awards Photo
Voting is now open for the 2022 BroadwayWorld Nashville Awards! Nominations were reader-submitted and now our readers get to vote for their favorites.

Nashville Ballet Announces Youth Cast For NASHVILLES NUTCRACKER Photo
Local students will be helping the Emmy nominated Nashville Ballet perform their annual production of Nashville's Nutcracker this December. Running at TPAC December 9–24, this beloved holiday event allows aspiring artists from School of Nashville Ballet, Rejoice School of Ballet, and the Hispanic Family Foundation the opportunity to perform alongside Nashville Ballet's professional company dancers. 

Madison Steinbruck Releases Indie Single Bad News Photo
Nashville-based singer/songwriter Madison Steinbruck has returned with her latest single, 'Bad News.' The track, a third single off of Madison's upcoming debut LP Australia's Lonelier, discusses the disappointing realization that an ill-fated relationship has to come to an end.

From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)

Review: Nostalgic and Warm MARVELOUS WONDERETTES May Be the Cure For What Ails YouReview: Nostalgic and Warm MARVELOUS WONDERETTES May Be the Cure For What Ails You
November 16, 2022

There’s really nothing better for what ails you – particularly on a cold, wet and dreary Sunday afternoon – than a stroll down memory lane, thanks to a tuneful trip to the 1950s and ‘60s with The Marvelous Wonderettes, a nostalgic and enormously entertaining musical revue by Roger Bean.

Review: HADESTOWN 'Mesmerizes and Captivates' During Weeklong Stand at Nashville's TPACReview: HADESTOWN 'Mesmerizes and Captivates' During Weeklong Stand at Nashville's TPAC
November 2, 2022

Mesmerizing and captivating are just two of the words that might best describe Hadestown, the Tony Award-winning best musical of the truncated 2019-20 Broadway season, which is now commanding ovations of rapturous applause from adoring fans at Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center during an eight-performance run through Sunday, November 6.

Review: Lauren Shouse's Sublime Direction of THE CAKE Provides Much Food for ThoughtReview: Lauren Shouse's Sublime Direction of THE CAKE Provides Much Food for Thought
October 28, 2022

Lauren Shouse’s directorial resume is quite the impressive one and over the years she’s helmed productions for Nashville Repertory Theatre that have been justifiably acclaimed both by audiences and critics alike. But despite the notoriety that seems to always accompany a “Lauren Shouse-directed production,” perhaps none is more deserved than the accolades that follow in the wake of The Cake, the latest entry on her already stellar list of shows.

Interview: Award-winning Author Lewis Kempfer On The Publication of 120 SEATS IN A BOILER ROOMInterview: Award-winning Author Lewis Kempfer On The Publication of 120 SEATS IN A BOILER ROOM
October 10, 2022

Tomorrow – October 11, 2022 – marks yet another momentous day in the history of Boiler Room Theatre, the late and lamented theater company that originally brought professional theater to The Factory at Franklin. 120 Seats in a Boiler Room: The Creation of a Courageous Professional Theater, the latest book by BRT co-founder Lewis Kempfer (who is an award-winning author in addition to his multi-hyphenate theater titles as director-producer-actor-designer), will be released by Amazon.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Inspiring and Astonishing SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIMReview: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Inspiring and Astonishing SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM
October 9, 2022

Since his death in 2021, Stephen Sondheim and his canon of work have justifiably been on the hearts and minds of theater people from around the world, with revivals, retrospectives and remembrances filling the calendars of an amazing range of companies paying homage to the master of contemporary musical theater. Just in time for a new season of productions highlighting the Nashville theater calendar, Belmont University Musical Theatre has chosen the aptly named musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim to launch a two-show semester that honors the genius of the master while showcasing the talents of its roster of musical theater majors who continue to add luster to the program’s reputation.