By William Shakespeare
Produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company
Directed by David Muse
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Shakespeare Theatre’s sturdy and handsomely-mounted Julius Caesar leaves things… unresolved.
Are we helpless pawns to a hapless fate, as Director Muse works hard to imply by his staging? Or can a clever politician, such as the formidable Mark Antony (Andrew Long), engage his rhetoric in such a way as to twist both men and fate to his own design? Or what are we to make of Brutus (Tom Hammond), who is ostensibly the play’s moral center? He kills his City’s leader and his own close friend (“Brutus was his angel,” Antony says at one point) to save Rome from falling from a Republic to an Empire. Agonized hero – or pompous windbag prone to bouts of self-righteousness? And what of our own selves – that is to say, the rabble rallying behind this leader or that, changing with the wind, in Caesar’s time or our own? Are we as incapable of making thoughtful choices, and staying with them, as Shakespeare shows us to be? And if we are, was the Republic worth saving?
Julius Caesar is itself a somewhat ambiguous play, in which both sides are loaded up with fine argument and garbed in moral righteousness. Mr. Muse has chosen to deepen the ambiguity, rather than help us sort it out, by adding quasi-Greek elements of fate and tragedy not readily apparent in the text. For example, he opens the play with the soothsayer’s (Kryztov Lindquist) warning about the Ides of March, and great Caesar (Dan Kremer) makes not one but three post-mortem appearances – twice to effectuate plot points that Shakespeare had made using other characters.
This gloss on the play, however, is contradicted by the production’s other notable feature: Long’s electrifying performance as Mark Antony. In most productions, the morality of Brutus’ decision to slay Caesar lies at the center of the play. Here, Antony’s triumphant manipulation of the crowd, and of history, is the engine that makes the production go. Long plays every ounce of the character as written, including by showing him as a fun-loving, riotous and dissipated youth at the beginning of the play. (At one point he staggers onstage, head-weary and obviously hung over, to the surprise and appreciative laughter of the audience). His interpretation is fully supported by the text, and makes it easy for us to understand why Brutus spares his life, and even permits him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.
As for that speech: this is simply the best I’ve ever seen it done. Muse wisely deletes the speech’s iconic opening line – one of the most famous in all Shakespeare – and permits Antony to come right to the point: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Antony then, of course, proceeds to praise Caesar and condemn his killers for ten minutes, until his listeners are all in tears and rage.
Long, as he does throughout the play, displays the full context of his character’s words with a few deft gestures. Periodically, Muse freezes the tableau in darkness and concentrates the spotlight on a few of the rabble, talking to each other to show the impact Antony’s oration is having. When the lights come up again there is a shadow of a smile on Long’s lips, to show that Antony is aware of the impact. When the crowd, roused to high revenge against Brutus and the other conspirators, breaks out in impassioned vows and curses, Long’s Antony puts on a bemused smirk for a few seconds before reassuming his noble mask and issuing another sally against his enemies in the guise of defending them.
Antony’s speech is positively Nixonian in its deviousness, and the savvy Washington audience drank it up last night. When Antony says “O masters, if I were disposed to stir/Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,/I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,/Who, you all know, are honorable men:” we hear the modern master’s sing-song baritone: “Now, I know my opponent is absolutely sincere in his out-of-the-mainstream beliefs….” Long, who is well established in Washington theater as a heavy, here grabs a complex and meaty role and hits all its elements right on the money. To the extent that a Helen Hayes laureate can be said to have had a breakout performance, this is it.
The other principal performances are highly polished but somewhat subdued in comparison to Long’s. Kremer’s Caesar is a mature leader – justified by the text and history as well (Caesar was about 56 when he died). He does not seem, though, like the sort of figure who could sweep a nation off its feet while alive, nor haunt it after death. Scott Parkinson leavens his performance as arch-conspirator Caius Cassius with a sprig of bad-boy mirth, exercising enough restraint in his second Act confrontation with Brutus so that he can reconcile himself not only with his comrade-in-arms but with the audience as well. Hammond’s Brutus radiates earnestness, and we immediately understand both his stoicism and the difficulty of his choice. But he, and Muse, choose not to explore other aspects of Brutus’ emotional constitution, and this renders some of the character’s longer ruminative passages less exciting than they would otherwise be.
Shakespeare, who lived at a time when the British monarchy was at its height, had little use for the popular selection of leaders, and he treats the rabble with great scorn, both here and later in Coriolanus. Muse, despite what appears to be an excellent ensemble, chooses to low-key this aspect of the play, cutting or de-emphasizing those portions which denigrate the man in the street.
While this production of Julius Caesar is awash in ambiguity, there is nothing ambiguous about the production values. They are terrific. James Noone’s excellent and economical set morphs unobtrusively into whatever the play requires. Mark McCullough’s fine lighting design accomplishes everything it needs to, and it needs to do plenty: interior lighting, exterior lighting, storms and, at the play’s end, a terrifying, beautiful, blood-red dawn. The production chooses to do the play in full Roman dress, and Jennifer Moeller makes the togas and gowns as believable everyday clothes. Daniel Baker graces the production with deep cello sounds, and they help us know how sad this story is. The battle scenes are principally suggestive, and done in slow-mo, all to good effect. Rick Sordelet is fight director. It is impossible not to observe what a beautiful, beautiful theater the new Harman Hall is.
By way of full disclosure, I must tell you that I once took an acting class from Mr. Long. Believe me when I tell you that this has not influenced my review.
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
When: Julius Caesar is running in rep with Antony and Cleopatra, and so the schedule is irregular. Julius Caesar runs on Tuesday, May 27, and June 10 and 24 at 7.30 p.m.; Wednesday, May 14 and 28 and June 11 at 7.30 p.m. and June 25 at noon and 7.30 p.m.; Thursday, May 22, June 15 and 19 at 8 p.m.; Friday, May 23 and June 6 and 20 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 17 and 31 and June 14 and 28 at 8 p.m. and May 24, June 7 and 21 and July 5 at 2 p.m.; and Sunday, May 25, June 8 and 22 and July 6 at 7.30 p.m. and May 11 and 15 and June 1, 15 and 29 at 2 p.m.
Where: Harman Hall, 610 F. Street NW, Washington D.C.
Tickets: $23.50 – $79.75. There are discounts available for seniors and students.