Julius Caesarby William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Nigel Gore and Mat Leonard; photo: Kevin Sprague
There is a tide in the affairs of men. . ."
Nigel Gore and Eric Tucker; photo: Kevin Sprague
Men and their games: war, politics, women. Shakespeare seems to have written about every aspect of these three elements of manhood in one of his finest tragedies, Julius Caesar. He pulls no punches, spares no feelings, attacks the finest and lets loose a myriad of scandalous behaviors and insolent reactions. It's a great play. Filled with action and philosophy this theatrical expression of a man's difficulties, regrets and resolutions is wildly entertaining and in its current production at Shakespeare and Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theater in Lenox, MA it goes beyond just entertainment to treat its audience to a highlight list of quotable lines spoken with alacrity.
Director Tina Packer has revealed in her directors notes in the program that she "wanted to understand" how Shakespeare could send out a play like this one with only seven actors on stage. I find that curious since four years ago on this very same stage her employee, actor/director Jonathan Croy brought in his touring production of the same play with only six actors making it work. Perhaps that was the year Ms. Packer spent in England doing a play, making it impossible for her to see Croy's edition. I don't recall. However, she has managed to do what he did with an extra actor (or in this case actress Kristin Wold) in the company and she has done it superbly.
Wold plays the two women in the show, Caesar's wife Calpurnia who urges him not to go to the Senate and then Portia, wife of Brutus. She also plays the manservant Lucius and five other men. She is also playing in this same theater in repertory with this play as Shakespeare's wife/widow Anne Hathaway in the play "Shakespeare's Will." Clearly she is a woman of many talents, something she is proving nearly nightly in the company's crowded schedule. She is wonderful in all three major roles, but her luscious Lucius is particularly wonderful, especially in the final scenes of the second part of the play.
Nigel Gore is undertaking the title role and his performance is one of his most vivid, ragged and enjoyable. His gravelly voice, his height and his darkly powerful stare give a very unique portrait of the man who might be king but who instead is murdered by his peers and friends. Gore rants his way through the part, even in his tenderest moments with Calpurnia. His physical attack on the seer who predicts trouble on the Ides of March is a very graphic example of needless violence but its use here defines the almost demonic desires of Julius. Gore also plays Titinius, Decius Brutus (not THE Brutus) and a host of other smaller roles.
Brutus (the famous one) is played here by the only tenor-voiced actor in the company of seven, Eric Tucker. This actor is a genial fellow who cannot truly portray the evil side of Brutus. Instead he gives us the Brutus who doesn't understand his own motivations and when confronted with truths he won't recognize he simply puts them to one side and continues on his way, merry, without pain, without sorrow until very late in the play. This is a fascinating portrait of one of the world's greatest villains. It played very well opposite the show's true opinion manipulator, Cassius.
Jason Asprey plays Cassius. From his first moment to his final one on earth, Asprey's Cassius is a man within a man. He himself seeks the power he accuses Julius of coveting. This Cassius really does have a "lean and hungry look" about him and Asprey knows exactly how to play the real and the phoney sides of his principal character. It is wonderful to watch him and hear him juggle Shakespeare's lines convincing all the folks around him that he is right when he is so clearly creating situations as needed. One of the best performances this actor has given, it is not to be missed.
Jason Udom plays Marc Antony to perfection, making the famous funeral oration into a true pleasure to hear once again. His grief over the death of Julius Caesar feels so real you want to reach out to him and console him. Udom's final scenes, during the war that ensues after Caesar's demise, are just as beautifully played.
Mat Leonard, who plays seven roles, is a devastating Cinna, the Poet; as well, he makes much of Octavius Caesar, Julius' nephew. Andrew Borthwick-Leslie plays Casca, as nasty a piece of antagonism as ever created. These seven performers build the illusion of a stage-full of actors playing lots and lots of parts, and this cut-down edition of the play feels just about right at two hours and twenty-three minutes.
This production seems to have been developed in conjunction with Prague Shakespeare Company, Orlando Shakespeare Festival and UCF, so the following credits may belong to other theater companies. Ryan McGettigan sets are stark and add unique properties to the play. Kristina Tollefson's costumes more than do their job (although the long sleeve knit shirt didn't seem to want to conceal Asprey's wristwatch). Matthew Miller's lighting design was excellent. Douglas Seldin choreographed the fights and battles and Britt Sandusky controlled his sound design work perfectly.
In the wake of my recent visit to "Capitol Steps" and their ultimate closing number (Lirty Dies) as it applies to this political play, "Birected dy Pina Tacker" is almost the perfect accolade for Tina Packer's fine work here, turning Shakespeare's play inside-out and standing it, and us, on our respective heels. This is a play about heels and it is everyone's role to figure out just who is what and why. Have fun!
Nigel Gore and James Udom
Eric Tucker and Jason Asprey; photo: Kevin Sprague
Julius Caesar plays in repertory at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespear and Company campus, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA through August 30. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line to www.shakespeare.org.