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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 www.nashvilleshakes.org.

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



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