"Julius Caesar" at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, October 03-27, 2019
Since the site is not allowing the posting of reviews in its normal place, the backlog of my reviews will be going to the forum
Mary Ruth Ralston’s production of "Julius Caesar" at the Shakespeare Tavern is a noisy play. It starts with the Roman rabble shouting over one another, and the shouts continue every time the common people collect onstage. There’s a simulated onstage storm in which speakers have to try to make themselves heard over thunder. The noisiness is emblemized by Marc Anthony’s "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," which is shouted full volume as if to say "Hey, people, pipe down and let me get a word in."
The play itself doesn’t have Shakespeare’s most engaging storyline. We meet Julius Caesar just as he has rejected the crown after having been offered it three times; the next thing we know he’s emperor and Cassius is plotting his overthrow, and he’s dead by intermission. The second act is all the conspirators battling the Roman forces and their own consciences. There are well-known Shakespearean lines and phrases, but it all seems pretty bloodless in content while being bloody enough in physical terms.
The costumes by Anné Carole Butler have a bit of a slapdash quality about them, with formless tunics for the rabble, draped fabric vaguely resembling togas for the patricians, and medieval armor for the battle scenes. Lighting, by Greg Hanthorn Jr., is more impressive visually, especially in the storm scene, with its lightning flashes and atmospheric gloom. Music by Matt Nitchie adds a sleepy touch to a bedtime violin solo, followed by Portia’s ghost’s vocal imitation. Background sound otherwise adds to the competing, distracting noises of the proceedings.
Sword fights are often the highlights of Shakespeare Tavern productions. Not here. Drew Reeves’ fight choreography may be capable enough, but its execution is ponderous. The main impression is of women in battle tunics crossing swords in a painfully slow manner with an overabundance of physical effort. Luckily, there’s only one battle scene.
Acting is fine, with Marcus Hopkins-Turner regal and resonating as Julius Caesar. J.L. Reed brings intensity to Brutus, and Kenneth Wigley adds just a touch of the weasel to Cassius. Daniel Parvis is a blast of power, both vocally and physically, as Marc Anthony. The women come off well, with Olivia Dawson a striking Calphurnia, Amy L. Levin a well-spoken Casca, Kati Grace Brown an effective soothsayer, and Amanda Lindsey a standout in all her roles. That’s a problem in the production, though: there’s so much double-casting, especially of the women in men’s roles, that keeping characters straight isn’t always possible. Poor Jake West has so little visible stage time that he’s basically a stranger at curtain call.
Ms. Ralston hasn’t turned "Julius Caesar" into a compelling production. The comedy of the opening scene seems at odds with what follows, and there’s a choppy quality to the storytelling. A flower child scene with Rivka Levin seems to come out of left field, and the whole show seems almost a highlights trailer of Shakespeare’s text, with most of the action consisting of material that should have been left on the cutting room floor. This is much more a miss than a hit.