The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Julius Caesar has some strong performances and interesting ideas, but it doesn't hang together conceptually.
The play itself is problematic. It begins with a focus on the uses and abuses of state power, as Julius Caesar, home from the wars, seems set to become absolute ruler of Rome. The ugly currents beneath his genial bearing and the city's general air of celebration are revealed early, when two men who object to the festivities are hustled off and — as we learn later — put to death. The opposition is a mixed bag. Cassius, who brings together several prominent Romans in a plot to assassinate Caesar, seems motivated primarily by envy. But his co-conspirator, Brutus, is a deeply principled man, full of concern for the body politic and anguished by the choice he faces. And the moral compass swings again after the assassination when Caesar's ally, Mark Antony, turns his righteous indignation into a quest for power of his own. But after he goads a crowd of Romans into a vengeful rampage with one of the greatest and most manipulative political speeches ever written, the action goes into a downward spiral — battles, battlefield suicides — interrupted only by the brilliantly passionate scene in which Cassius and Brutus quarrel and reconcile.
Cynthia Croot's direction amplifies rather than mitigates the script's problems, but it also provides small moments of revelation. She's set the play in "a fictional Rome several years from now — beset with civil strife, embracing primitive religious rites amidst social upheaval, poised on the brink of either revitalization or collapse" — and that means she can introduce just about anything: costumes of no particular period (Mark Antony first enters in shorts and running shoes, like any Boulderite out for a morning jog), and a stage that's almost bare except for a shabby sofa and an intrusive pile of junk stage left that serves no purpose whatever. A drawing of a lion dominates the set; the beast's front is luxuriantly furred and maned, while its rear end is skeletal. Perhaps it represents Rome, perhaps kingship, perhaps both. The Soothsayer wanders around in a peculiar white costume and futuristic headgear that still has me racking my brain for possible pop-culture references. A dead deer — presumably the animal that Caesar's servants slaughtered in order to read the future in its entrails, and whose lack of heart prophesied Caesar's downfall — hangs above the stage, head lolling. I don't think it's meant to be funny, but it is. Shower curtains adorn the set, and Caesar's corpse is ultimately wrapped in one. Or perhaps it's a dry cleaning bag.
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
What misguided fealty to postmodernism has Croot directing the actors to freeze at the moment of the attack on Caesar while one of them announces intermission? This, plus the rollicking rock music that accompanies the eventual kill, trivializes every death that follows. And in the scene where Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, attempts to dissuade her husband from going to the Capitol because she fears for his life, Calpurnia is whacked out on drugs. Having pleaded on her knees and lost, she seems to lose interest in the entire argument and wanders off without a backward glance. Although this is kind of amusing, I'm not sure what it adds.
But while some of Croot's ideas are awful and others just odd, a few work very well indeed. Some are mere moments: Caesar gently touches the Soothsayer; Portia silently watches Cassius and Brutus saying goodbye to each other; Caesar's servant scuttles out of the room, and we realize that he's afraid of his master.
Richard Thieriot's Mark Antony is the best thing about the production, although it took me a few scenes to appreciate the interpretation. This Mark Antony manifests none of the charisma we associate with the role (think Marlon Brando in the movie). When he enters the Capitol to view Caesar's body, he's a sheepish nerd, shifting from foot to foot, flashing appeasing grins at the bloody-handed men surrounding him. He mutes the poetry and passion of the great speeches and gives "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" just enough juice to accomplish his ends — neither more nor less. It's always wonderful to hear these famous set pieces anew, and Thieriot delivers them as if he'd just that moment thought them up.
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Bob Buckley plays Julius Caesar as a corporate type — brisk, practical and unimaginative — and it fits. In another concept that helps us reimagine the action, Croot has made Cassius a woman. Vivid and restrained at first, Karen Slack gives us a Cassius who's both a talented and cunning officer and a woman operating in a world so sexist that, despite her rank, a co-conspirator feels free to tap her on the nose. But in the later scenes, as her voice cracks and she becomes all tears and vulnerability, Brutus reveals an ugly dominance over her. This shifts the play off its axis until it seems that all the plotting has been less about power and politics than Cassius's unrequited love for Brutus. It doesn't help that her death is more bathetic than noble: Pindarus stabs her as requested, then puts her out of her writhing misery with his gun as if she were a dog. (If the man had a bloody gun, why didn't he use it in the first place?)
Kyle Haden is an appealing Brutus and gives the character an appropriate gravitas, though he could have been more expressive. In the relatively minor role of Casca, Sean Tarrant dominates every scene he's in. I like Geoffrey Kent's punky, hot-headed Octavius, and Sarah Fallon is touching as Brutus's wife, Portia. Julia Motyka plays one of the conspirators with glittery-eyed malevolence that compels attention — but I've no idea what it means.
Even though large segments of this production left me cold and others struck me as risible, it's nice to see a director taking risks, thinking and feeling her way through the text and working to make it her own.