There are a thousand things wrong with this misconceived and poorly-executed production, beginning with the theme. There is no imaginable reason to place Julius Caesar in Caesar’s Palace, except as a play on words. But where does this lead us? Hamlet in a hamlet? King Lear in a Lear jet? MacBeth in a McDonalds?
I mean, whose idea is this? At the opening of the show, we are on the floor of Caesar’s Palace. We know where we are because we have been told by Marc Antony, in a speech in which he also told us to turn off our cell phones and devices of recording. It looks, however, like a VFW Hall on Mardi Gras night. Brutus (Jay Tilley) and Cassius (Terry Spann) are bellowing at each other about some bit of corruption by one of Cassius’ followers. We are not at the familiar opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but deep in the fifth Act, where, unbeknownst to us, the assassination has already taken place and Brutus and Cassius are already at war with Marc Antony.
Suddenly, inexplicably, the argument ends, and the erstwhile friends are once again reconciled. Brutus calmly and stoically reveals that Portia has died – by eating fire! Remarkable, but who’s Portia? Then Brutus bellows at someone else. Then everything calms down as people go to sleep. Brutus, like many great generals on the eve of battle, sits down at a card table and begins to play solitaire. Suddenly, the ghost of Julius Caesar enters the tent or casino, goes to the craps table, and begins to shoot craps. The ghost of Caesar! I didn’t even know he was sick! Brutus, startled from his card-playing torpor, rises and expresses his dismay. Caesar’s ghost exchanges sharp words with him, and exits. Immediately thereafter, five attractive young women, dressed in Animal House-style togas, mount the stage and dance to a medley of disco tunes, finishing, delightfully, with Lady Marmalade. After that, the play begins.
Director Bob Smith, by chopping up the play and cosseting it in this unfathomable setting, has given his actors a mighty challenge. I regret to report that they are not nearly up to it. Instead of actually listening and responding to each other, they treat us to a series of serial speeches. As the great Caesar, Ted Taylor gives a performance so listless that his death seems redundant. Tilly’s Brutus delivers his Shakespeare at a machine-gun pace. I understood perhaps every second word, and I’ve seen this play half a dozen times. He flies into rages so suddenly that one would think that Brutus had a mood disorder, although I must say that his quiet scenes, particularly with Portia, are very effective. Worst of all is Spann’s Cassius. Cassius is a master conspirator, single-minded, compelling, successful. He is a leader of men. The histrionic, gesticulating, eye-rolling, mincing Cassius which Spann gives us could have led no one and convinced no one. Mr. Spann, I respectfully commend to you the advice Hamlet gave actors in III.2 of that great play. Among the principals, only Marc Antony (Cory Eskridge) is not overmastered by the language. His performance is relatively restrained and straightforward, and I received it gratefully.
The supporting players – 12 actors in 44 roles – are almost uniformly inadequate, some painfully so. I specifically exempt Portia (Melissa McConnell), Calpurnia (Salma Qarnain) and Strato (Zach Arnold) from this observation, and there may be a couple of other supporting performances which are O.K.
When one actor performs badly, the actor is usually at fault. When this many actors fail, the director must take a large part of the blame. Mr. Smith’s conceptions, both large and small, are beyond my understanding. For example, he has Casca (Nathan Clark), fresh from a meeting of conspirators, stagger to the bar and down five shots of alcohol in about three minutes. Even an experienced toper could not have followed such an act with five minutes of Shakespearean dialogue, as he does. Or, how about this: Calpurnia runs to her Julius to warn him about the horrible dreams she has had and portents she has seen. She must be terrified as she intuits the awful fate her beloved husband awaits. But Smith has her make these revelations in a slow, romantic dance with Caesar.
Or, how about this: after the death of Cinna the poet, who the mob has overcome simply because she has the same name as one of the conspirators, the bartender announces last call. Sort of takes some of the dramatic air out of the moment. Or…but why go on?
People think it’s fun to write a review panning a show. They’re wrong. I hate it. The men and women involved with theater are honorable people, who do a difficult thing for very little money. Watching this unfortunate production made me feel like I did when I would watch my beloved Buffalo Bills blow another Super Bowl. Three years ago, Vpstart Crow produced one of the best Hamlets I have ever seen in my life. Let us hope that this company recovers itself and gives us productions which reflect its true capabilities.
Julius Caesar runs at Vpstart Crow Fridays through Sunday until March 12, 2006. Fridays and Saturdays are at 8 and Sundays at 2 p.m., 9008 Center Street, Manassas VA.