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BWW Reviews: All Hail - Folger's Mystical JULIUS CAESAR Conquers All

Steeped in a mystic atmosphere, director Robert Richmond and his excellent company of actors breathe new life to Shakespeare's political and personal tale of assassination and retribution. JULIUS CAESAR is visually stunning, a feast for the ears, and boasts a commanding ensemble. If you thought JULIUS CAESAR was about guys in togas and Marc Antony's funeral speech, think again. This is a production not to miss.

Shrouded figures arrive on stage as if transported through a mystical portal. The shadow players move in a ritualistic manner, harkening back to temple priests from ancient times. The riveting visual feast is accompanied by the dynamic sound and music design by Eric Shimelonis. I mention Shimelonis' work so early in the review to point how just how essential his work is to the production as a whole. The designer and composer has created a monumental soundscape that works as another character throughout the performance. As a whole, Robert Richmond's visionary treatment of JULIUS CAESAR is as good as it gets.

Take, for example, the Soothsayer, here portrayed with ethereal and dangerous presence by Nafessa Monroe. How often has the pivotal role of the Soothsayer gave his warning to the mighty Caesar and then faded into the background? This is not the case in Richmond's production. The Soothsayer serves as a high priestess, an oracle of the highest order, whose presence hovers over the action from start to finish.

As for the other character, when they removing their shrouds, Shakespeare's dramatis personae emerge as one, to bring new life - exciting, compelling life - to this very personal tale of historical intrigue. Richmond has a new vision for nearly every character and each one pays off in drachmas galore. Caesar - played with heroic commitment by Michael Sharon - is charismatic, handsome, and cunning. As his stalwart supporter and right hand man Marc Antony, Maurice Jones is passionate and devoted. The strong relationship between the celebrated general and would be dictator and his most trusted lieutenant was made clear and solidified the never-wavering mission Marc Antony takes on after the assassination. As for the famous funeral oration, it is important to remember Brutus - Anthony Cochrane - addresses the Roman mob first, easily keeping himself and his fellow assassins in their good graces. Jones, as Marc Antony, as written by Shakespeare, trumps Brutus handily and lathers the crowd up into a fevered frenzy of revenge.

As another of Caesar's entourage, Antony Cochrane presents a Brutus who is clear in his convictions and unsure of his consequences. Cochrane also has a masterful way with the blank verse and imagery Shakespeare afforded the role of Brutus. It's no mean feat making Shakespeare sound like contemporary dialogue, but Cochrane's gifts as an actor made it so.

Another standout among the stellar company, as the lean and hungry Cassius, is Louis Butelli, a veteran of other Richmond productions. (He was a stand-out in HENRY V and TWELFTH NIGHT two seasons ago, for example.) Here, Butelli truly transforms into the sinewy, sly, and stealthy conspirator. The verse drips and spews out of his mouth, yet he makes Cassius a sympathetic character and not a one-note baddie.

There is really no weak link in this production, from the wives of Caesar and Brutus, Portia and Calphurnia, as played with filial conviction by Shirine Babb and Deidra LaWan Starnes, respectively. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh makes an impact as conspirator Casca and soldier Messala. Joe Brack, JaBen Early, Robbie Gray, and William Vaughn lend able support playing various conspirators, Romans, and taking their turn as the omniscient cloaked figures that watch over the action from curtain to curtain.

The assassination of Caesar (and other fight scenes) was another masterful production element, under the creative and adept direction of Casey Dean Kaleba. For a moment, it looked like Caesar might be able to fight back as Cassius, Casca, Brutus and the others take arms against the Roman general.

Speaking of cloaks, shrouds, doublets and World War I-style battlefield attire, Mariah Hale's costume designs enhanced the charged atmosphere and character choices of the actors. Jim Hunter's kaleidoscopic lighting design added flavor and mood to the striking scenic design by Tony Cisek. The setting brought to mind a lost temple from antiquity which allowed Richmond's moments of ritualistic repetition and theatrical flourishes full reign.

Memorable moments abound in this rave-worthy production. After Caesar's assassination, Brutus addresses his co-conspirators: "Stoop, Romans, stoop, And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords." Upon this action the shrouded Soothsayer offers each man's hand a literal blood bath before they head to the streets of Rome to offer their triumphant swords for the freedom from the would be tyrant. In the closing moments of the play, once Marc Antony and his forces are triumphant, the victors take to their knees and repeat the bloody ritual from the assassins. I leave it to you now to make your way to the Folger Theatre before December 7 to experience JULIUS CAESAR for yourself.

Ticket information: Click HERE

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre

Running time: Act I - 1 hr, 29 min.; Act II: 45 min.

Oct 28-Dec 7

CAST: Shirine Babb: Portia; Joe Brack: Cinna, Titinius; Louis Butelli: Cassius; Anthony Cochrane: Brutus; JaBen Early: Octavius Caesar; Maboud Ebrahimzadeh: Casca, Messala; Robbie Gay: Lepidus, Trebonius, Cinna the Poet; Maurice Jones: Mark Antony; Nafeesa Monroe: Soothsayer; Michael Sharon: Julius Caesar; Deidra LaWan Starnes: Calphurnia; William Vaughan: Lucius

PRODUCTION: Robert Richmond, Director; Tony Cisek, Scenic Designer; Mariah Hale, Costume Designer; Jim Hunter, Lighting Designer; Eric Shimelonis, Sound Designer and Music Composition; Casey Dean Kaleba, Fight Director; Michele Osherow, Resident Dramaturg; Daryl Eisenberg, CSA, New York Casting; Che Wernsman, Production Stage Manager; Beth Ribar, Assistant Stage Manager; Janet Alexander Griffin, Artistic Producer; Beth Emelson, Assistant Artistic Producer

FOLGER JC 1 = A Soothsayer warns Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March." FOLGER JC 2 = Mark Antony (Maurice Jones) reads Caesar's will to the people.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Malet / Folger

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