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BWW Reviews: All-Female Julius Caesar Brings The Bard's Backstabbing to Brooklyn

Fans of the Netflix drama "Orange is the New Black" might feel in familiar territory with the Donmar Warehouse production of "Julius Caesar," which director Phyllida Lloyd is presenting as if performed by the inmates of a women's correctional facility. The effect is intense, with the remarkable all-female, multiracial cast of 14 thrusting us into Shakespeare's tragedy as if there is no escape.

Theatergoers are led into the holding pen of the persuasively prison-like theater at 29 Jay Street -- being used by St. Ann's Warehouse until their new digs are ready in 2015 -- and lectured by correctional officers that we must turn off our cell phones or they WILL be confiscated. (Might this be an effective strategy for all theaters?) We are also told the play runs two hours and 15 minutes without an intermission, and if we leave at any time, we will not be permitted back. Only then are we permitted to take our seats. The rolling gate clanks shut, and, amidst the harsh lighting and inexplicable fog (designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Neil Austin deserve kudos for the startling atmospherics) the inmates in institutional gray sweats are marched before us in a line.

The play begins with a song and some loud and terrifying calisthenics - fists thrust in the air - in lieu of most of the words in Shakespeare's opening scenes. Such liberties are commonplace these days, of course, as are many of the theatrical touches here: brutal electric guitar and a drummer on wheels (the music is by Gary Yershon), live video cameras capturing and projecting the action as if the Romans are making a video of their exploits, scary paper masks of Caesar worn by all his soldiers, hoodlums in hoodies or ski masks and machine guns, red rubber gloves as if their hands were all dipped in blood, an inmate looking at a Playboy magazine centerfold, moments of chaos under strobe lighting that resemble free-form dance or theater games. But if these added elements don't necessarily fit literally into a logical whole, all of it feels of a piece, and brings home the ferocity and power dynamics of the play.

For all the avant-garde theatrical trappings, these British actors give Shakespeare's language its due, providing a clarity and consistency that is frankly too often missing in homegrown productions, such as the current Romeo and Juliet on Broadway.

The Bard is said to have created almost 800 roles for men but fewer than 150 roles for women - and male actors played these female characters in Shakespeare's time, a tradition that will be revisited later this season when Mark Rylance will bring all-male versions of "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" to Broadway. Given how many actresses yearn for juicy parts, it shouldn't come as a surprise that all-female casts of Shakespeare plays reportedly have become something of a trend, with an all-female Hamlet in L.A. and all-female Titus Andronicus in D.C.

If there were no other argument for the all-female cast of "Julius Caesar" at St. Ann's Warehouse, it would be enough that it allows us to see some terrific actors assay roles that are no longer closed off to them.

Frances Barber as Caesar is a bully in a black beret. At one point, he stuffs a donut down the throat of the "lean and hungry" Cassius (an effectively fierce Jenny Jules), then eats the donut from his mouth - the most predatory of kisses.

Watch as the actress interrupts Caesar's line "Et tu Brute" with odd and horrifying laughter

"Et" - cackle

"Et" - laugh

"Et" - explosion

"Et tu Brute?"

Mark Antony, played by a performer with the memorable name of Cush Jumbo, turns before our eyes from servile non-entity to eloquent defender of the leader and crafty architect of revenge

Despite its title, "Julius Caesar" revolves around the character of Brutus, and his moral struggles when he joins in the conspiracy to kill his close friend out of fear Caesar plots to turn the Roman Republic into a dictatorship. In her butch haircut and severe physique, Harriet Walter (Dame Harriet Walter to the British) is a riveting Brutus, his indecision and bloodlust and anguish playing out on her face. There are real chills when, having done the bloody deed, Brutus says above Caesar's body: "There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition."

"Julius Caesar" is running at St. Ann's Warehouse through November 3.

Photographs by Pavel Antonov


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From This Author Jonathan Mandell

Jonathan Mandell is a third-generation New York City journalist who saw his first show at age four at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, because (read more...)