It is this chameleonlike quality of Will's great tragedy that has led to so many repeat performances -- often done in modern dress, as is this production by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. The hip, contemporary look on stage -- business suits, dark sunglasses, and a volley of laptops carried by the ever-malleable embedded press corps -- imbues this reliable political thriller with immediacy, particularly on the brink of our hotly contested upcoming presidential election. Add an almost unstoppable flow of blood, some cool jazz licks, and a couple of chicks in tight dresses, and one might wonder whether this is really good ol' Julius or maybe CSI: Rome.
But fear not, the full story is here in all its gory glory. While Caesar is busy refusing the crown before the cheering throngs (wink, wink), Cassius is busily undermining the old man and fueling his buddy Brutus's doubts about him. Cue the thunderstorm, as the Ides of March approaches and Caesar gets repeated warnings about his impending demise from his wife, a soothsayer, and a few other passersby. Proving some leaders just never listen, he shows up at the Senate, where he's fricasseed by his closest friends, after which the eulogy by his friend Mark Antony inflames the citizens against the killers.
Shakespeare's glorious, indelible language is performed by a troupe that hits all the high notes, but misses some of the subtler undertones that could have made this production truly memorable. On the plus side, Richard Klautsch is fascinating as the conflicted Brutus, a favored citizen who is maneuvered into an assassination for which he will pay dearly. Fierce in his patriotic fervor, but gentle when alone with his wife, Klautsch works on multiple levels to create an involving portrait. As Mark Antony, David Anthony Smith segues from a laid-back, pastry-popping pal of Caesar's to a warrior bent on the destruction of Brutus and his cabal. Along the way, Smith delivers the play's most memorized, irony-laden speech ("Friends, Romans . . .") with such plainspoken, unaffected honesty that it's easy to see why the crowds flock to his side.
In the small but juicy role of Casca, a conspirator who stabs Caesar, Tom Ford owns the stage whenever he's on it. Whether he's tossing a dismissive, offhand wave to the ruler or wiping spittle off his chin, Ford adds humor to this most intense story without ever detracting from the momentum of the piece. In addition, Aled Davies is a waffling but not particularly compelling Caesar, and Kelly Sullivan is strong and persuasive as his wife, Calpurnia. Even though Douglas Frederick appears sufficiently lean and hungry as the ultimate plotter, Cassius, his intense tirades are too monochromatic and predictable. As a result, his scenes with Brutus lack shape and seem to conclude on a note of exhaustion.
Director Risa Brainin delivers a sinewy, thoughtful interpretation, focusing more on the interpersonal actions of the characters than on the sweep of events. This renders some of the action in the second act a bit more confusing, since it's easy to lose track of whose army is doing what to whom. Brainin also adds some nice contemporary touches -- when Brutus asks his manservant to play him a relaxing tune, the young man helps his master plug into an iPod. But some other flourishes are oddly out of place, such as Caesar wearing a sparkly flowing robe over his suit, when there are no other wardrobe touches from ancient Rome.
The techno set design by Russell Metheny uses two tall steel frameworks that rotate -- along with a few perfunctory gold columns -- to define playing areas. Tom Mardikes's sound design is particularly effective, with screeching trumpet solos punctuating the endgame fates of ambitious men whose ethics will always be up for debate.
What's not debatable, though, is the enduring power of Julius Caesar, togas or no togas, along with the genius of Shakespeare's flinty wit. As Cassius notes after shortening the king's existence, "He that cuts off so many years of life, cuts off so many years of fearing death." With friends like that, who needs Republicans?
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