BWW Review: Scena Theatre's JULIUS CAESAR Bristling with Energy and Contemporary Angst
Truth be known, Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare's most uneven works; I mean sure, it's got a conspiracy, an assassination and a kick-ass funeral oration, but that stuff is over and done with by halftime. What comes next is pure inside baseball: two coup leaders having a hissy fit in a tent, a battle in which nobody has a clue what's going on, a couple of suicides, and some young dude enters to wrap it up nice and tidy as the bodies get carted off.
This stuff may be a Classics scholar's dream but it's incredibly tedious for those who aren't hip to Roman history. (And any resemblance between the show's closing scene and that of Hamlet, with which it played in repertory at the original Globe Theatre, is hardly coincidental).
To make a production of this play successful, then, requires top-notch actors who know the language like the back of their hand, and an energetic supporting cast, closely choreographed, to give life to events that we might otherwise snooze through. And Robert McNamara's current production gives us everything you need for an exciting evening of Shakespeare, even for those who wouldn't know a Colosseum if it dropped into their front yards.
As with all Scena Theatre productions, this Julius Caesar has its quirks-witness McNamara himself, who plays the title character. But the combination of high-octane performers, solid in the pentameter and carefully directed, is thrilling to watch. You can't miss this one.
The acting triumvirate of Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony holds the stage for much of the action, and they are a powerful combination here indeed. David BRyan Jackson's Cassius is every inch the cynical manipulator, corrupt to the bone and driving his city-state headlong to destruction. It is Cassius' greed and jealousy that move him to con Brutus to become the figurehead of the plot against Caesar. As Brutus, Ian Blackwell Rogers gives us a more genteel, less bombastic figure who is all-too-easily convinced that assassination is the only way out of a political crisis. Clad in a red bathrobe (one of Costume Designer Heather Jackson's many nice touches), he projects an innocent urbanity that renders him more sympathetic than his partner-in-crime.
The most powerful presence in this production, as it should be, is Barry McEvoy's Mark Antony. One of the benefits of the intimate setting for this production is you get to enjoy McEvoy's cold, emotionless stare along with his brilliant oratorical display. Sure, during the famous funeral oration the supporting cast gets all riled up, but you don't expect to get half riled up yourself, McEvoy is that good. (A bit unnerving, that; echos of Steve Bannon?).
There are brilliant moments among the supporting cast as well, and I'll apologize in advance for being so arbitrary in my selection here because all deserve their own shout-out: Greg Ongao as the Soothsayer makes a fine debut here, and I hope to see a lot more of him as his time in Washington unfolds; Anne Nottage as Calpurnia (and Assistant Director) and Amanda Forstrom as Portia more than hold up the admittedly slim, woman's side of the action, and Kim Curtis tries his hand at many roles, most memorably the hapless, stammering Cinna the Poet who is one of the pro-Caesar mob's first victims. Last but not least here, Robert Sheire's turn as Decius Brutus is especially strong (his follow-on as Octavius is solid as well).
It is perhaps inevitable that the contemporary political scene would intrude on the play, but not in the ham-fisted manner of Shakespeare in the Park; McNamara's Caesar has no orange toupee and instead is a nattily-attired, narcissistic mafia don, decked nicely in his dinner whites. Physically imposing, he has the impulsiveness of a dictator-to-be, marred only by McNamara's idiosyncratic approach to the verse which renders some of the Bard's most famous lines ("The valiant never taste of death but once" in particular) incomprehensible.
By contrast, one master stroke here is to eliminate the roles of Caesar's fan club at the opening of the play; Decius Brutus' denunciation of the people for fawning over Caesar is delivered directly to the audience, making us implicit in the rise of a dictatorial regime-a word to the wise indeed. This attention to detail is an example of how the most effective theatrical protests are those that don't condescend to its audience.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson punctuates the action with effective overhead projections, and McNamara (whose degree is in Classics) ensures we have references to Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, which was the foundation for Shakespeare's play, right down to apt Greek and Latin expressions. Gleason's pre-show images of concrete block from the Metro, instantly recognizable, remind us we've got Caesars of our own. Denise Rose's sound design supports the action nicely, with its own share of eerie effects, and Jonathan Dahm Robertson's spare set, with visible-offstage chairs for the supporting cast is especially effective. The choreography of the cast's movements and fights had many hands in their creation, and without these contributions the production could easily have descended into chaos; it never does, and is a credit to all involved.
You have just three weekends to see this Caesar - go thou and make haste.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Julius Caesar runs September 1-24 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993 or online at: https://atlasarts.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S0H00000KUVTtUAP .