Standing Rome Only

On the eve of an infamous assassination, several concerned Romans gather in their leader's home to plan the next day's doings. Like any cadre of revolutionaries, Brutus and his gang of nobles spend a great deal of time reassuring each other that the only way to preserve the body politic is to cut off its swelled head. Thus comforted, the conspirators in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar carry out their ill-fated coup d'etat, precipitating a tragic descent into anarchy that cleanses even as it destroys.

Although the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's version lacks portrayals of tragic scope and consequence, director Patrick Kelly and company manage to lend some immediacy to an ancient tale of politics and power plays. Performed against a backdrop reminiscent of Albert Speer's designs for the Third Reich (credit Bruce Brockman with the angular setting), the smartly staged crowd scenes -- punctuated by a few well-placed special effects -- prove more effective than those of one-on-one debate.

In fact, the most interesting episode occurs just before intermission. As a group of frenzied citizens riots in the streets following Marc Antony's famous funeral oration (given over a catafalque bearing Caesar's draped corpse), several men corner a poet known as Cinna. Since he goes by the same name as one of the now-despised conspirators, the crowd, spurred on by Antony's manipulation of their emotions, turns on the hapless scribe and decides to rip him to pieces. Even when the terrified wordsmith succeeds in convincing them that he's just a poet who had nothing to do with Caesar's murder, in a chilling moment, the bloodthirsty mob mercilessly bludgeons him to death. Other scenes that pit the citizenry against its leaders -- especially those that spill over into the seating area -- also hold the audience's interest.

However, apart from Ray Kemble's fine turn as the doomed Caesar, most of the leading characters seem cut of a more common cloth than do the hordes of yammering citizens -- at least initially. Brutus (John Tessmer), for instance, starts out sounding like an anxious clerk rather than an anguished statesman; it's hard to understand why the conspirators would need his help at all, much less heed any of his spoken desires. Likewise, Marc Antony (Jeremy Stiles Holm) walks about with a benign smile on his face instead of exuding the quiet strength of a capable if reserved warrior. And Cassius (Timothy Carter), the man behind Brutus's ill-fated power play, behaves more like a mincing Machiavel than a passionate, overzealous patriot. And while Tessmer and Carter craft an intriguing relationship as the play progresses, their fateful demises near play's end fail to strike much of a chord: In an apparent attempt to humanize a pair of distant historical figures, the performers succeed only in reducing arch debate to narrow-minded argument and shrinking epic feeling to inconsequential moodiness.

What the warring triumvirate of Antony, Brutus and Cassius does manage to establish is a strong sense of the play's ongoing relevance. This is most evident in the scenes that surround Caesar's funeral: Tessmer's initial appeal to the populace reveals a born leader's instinctive ability to sway with bearing as much as with words, and Holm's rendering of "Friends, Romans, countrymen" conveys an unwilling hero's fierce determination to separate right from wrong. Later, when Cassius learns of the death of Brutus's wife, Carter's arresting reaction, combined with his decent verse-speaking throughout, demonstrates a more thorough understanding of character, as does Joel C. Morello's heartrending response (as Publius Cimber) to seeing the fallen Caesar's lifeless body. (Strangely enough, there's not a drop of purplish liquid spilled in what amounts to, literally, a bloodless coup, even though Antony makes a point in the original -- all but lost here -- of shaking hands with each and every blood-soaked conspirator.)

In the end, no amount of melodramatic bombast adequately substitutes for the tragic thought and feeling that permeate Shakespeare's play. Even so, the actors' efforts, as deftly shaped by Kelly's astute staging, drive home the point that plays about politics ought to be ongoing civic debates and not mere history lessons. That by itself seems a worthy accomplishment.

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Jim Lillie