Julius Caesar, a co-production between the Guthrie and the Acting Company

Will Sturdivant as Brutus and Sid Solomon as Cassius in Julius Caesar. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Julius Caesar, asserts the officious and buttoned down Brutus in his oration at Caesar’s funeral, “was ambitious, [and so] I slew him.”

But isn’t ambition the assassins’ over-riding motivation?  They pay poor lip service to serving “great Rome,” but “lean and hungry” Cassius and his furtive cohorts react mostly to the man’s raw power.  Caesar “bestrides the world like a colossus,” he wants to be “king,”, Cassius et al are mere “underlings.”  Cassius enlists the dull and pompous Brutus (or so he seems in this reading) in the conspiracy, hoping that Brutus can lend it some solidity.  But Brutus’s bloodlust proves as insane as anyone’s: “It must be by his death.”

Frightening, fascinating.  And occasionally frustrating: in Julius Caesar (in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, a co-production with the Acting Company, through Feb 5) William Shakespeare provides little motivation for the killers beyond a simple need to bloody their hands, little sense of Caesar’s accomplishments.  There is a very modern quandary at the center of this play: we’re committed to this horror but we’re not precisely sure why.  This compelling modern vibe explains why Julius Caesar is so often performed.

It also explains why the piece is so often given (as in this production) in contemporary dress.  Director Rob Melrose dresses his killers in dorky young Republican suits, sets the action in Washington, D.C., and uses (to good effect) a bank of video screens (Shawn Sagady receives credit for video design; no doubt set designer Neil Patel lent a helpful hand).  Lots of hip-hop transition music, cell-phone use, gouts of blood splashing across the screens.  Cool.  The assassination is staged in a conference room, and Caesar’s slayers use letter openers.

Once Caesar dies, Julius Caesar “lets slip the dogs of war” and takes off.  Beginning with the brilliantly written funeral, Mark Antony dominates.  The assassins fight back, uselessly.  Madness sweeps the city – gunfire, whumping helicopters.  The scene in which thugs kill the poet Cinna “for his bad verses,” frightens and thrills.

As does the performance of Zachary Fine as Antony.  Fine does the best, imo, work, easily moving from buttoned-down conservatism to wild Shakespearean power, as he leads the struggle against the rebels.  Similarly excellent is Kevin Orton as Casca. I may not have entirely agreed with William Sturdivant‘s deliberate Brutus but there is no doubt that Sturdivant is an actor of intelligence and flair; he held my interest throughout.  Other actors are good, but too often their work tends toward the generic and this takes some edge off the play.  Director Melrose overuses dissonant background music (and plays it too loud, even for my aging ears).  These are minor complaints; this is a solid production of a terrific play.

Note that in April Theatre Unbound will produce an all-female production of Julius Caesar.  It will be interesting to compare that production with this one.  Certainly this play will stand up to multiple viewings.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website

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