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Friday, March 28, 2014

Theater review: Julius Caesar

Posted By on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 1:25 PM

"The fault, my dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings," Cassius famously says in Julius Caesar, sealing his position in Shakespeare's pantheon of wily provocateurs. Over and over again in his works, Shakespeare derides the foolishness of believing astrological predictions and soothsaying portents, yet over and over, the people who do are more good and wholesome than the cynical, clear-eyed skeptics. Gloucester is unmercifully mocked in King Lear for his trust in augury, and his mocker, Gloucester's bastard son Edmund, is responsible for his hideous undoing.

So in creating his Caesar, Shakespeare compounds the paradox and ambivalence we find elsewhere in his tragedies. For if you head on over to Duke Energy Theater, the current Shakespeare Carolina production will remind you that Caesar was very much on the fence when it came to trusting the stars, natural events, and soothsayers that foretold his future.

A politician to the bone! For even Caesar's own mind is constantly swayed by the endless entreaties of his close advisors and his wife Calpurnia, ever bending to the babble of the rabble. More purposeful are his enemies, Cassius and Brutus, but they are also politicians, Cassius preying on opportunity and Brutus, for all his lofty democratic ideals, susceptible to flattery and ambition. Nor are Antony and Octavius, taking up Caesar's banner after his assassination, any less cunning and calculating than the usurpers they seek to usurp.

Under the rule of a beloved queen and enjoying Elizabethan patronage, Shakespeare seems to favor Caesar and the royalists who champion his cause, but the Bard is so objective and even-handed with Brutus - extenuating his worst sins by scapegoating Cassius - that Americans especially tend to see the playwright as a closeted democrat. What's most disappointing about the ShakesCar production is that director Tony Wright, with the freedom to choose sides that Shakespeare never enjoyed, remains as neutral as the drab set design at Duke Energy Theater.

Stronger actors add weight to the rebel cause, with Russell Rowe as Brutus and Wright casting himself as Cassius. Yet there remains a conspiratorial malignity to them, little regard between them for the populace, and their best work comes in the heat of battle, late in the evening when the two chieftains wrangle over Cassius's corruption. We're closer to the bickerings of the Greek generals in The Iliad than we are to 1776.

With limited manpower, Wright often has the same men and women playing Brutus' and Antony's followers, and the best ensemble work occurs when the fickleness and caprice of the mob are exposed. These are sadly underscored by Oyebola Ande's deficiencies as an orator delivering Antony's celebrated funeral address. You can't fully capture his emerging charisma by simply saying "Brutus is an honorable man" progressively louder each time. You must have the skill-set to say it in different ways.

Both of the wives bring luminosity to the domestic scenes, Amy Arpan as Calpurnia and Katie Bearden as Brutus' wife Portia, lighting their worries with love. As the devious Decius, debunking Calpurnia's fears so that Caesar ventures forth on the dreaded Ides of March, Robert Brafford shows that he's worthy of more spotlight than he gets, and Norman Burt is a marvelous hulking presence as the Soothsayer. While Chris Freeman reminds me more of a big man on campus than a general who can "bestride the narrow world like a colossus," I like the vain gloss he gives Caesar in life - and the accusatory menace he takes on in death with his multiple curtain calls as a ghost.

Wright's noncommittal approach might be legitimately defended as trusting the material; but why, then, does he cut so much of it? This aggressive splicing seems to have become an ethos common to both Metrolina Shakespeare companies, probably rooted less in devaluing the Bard than in underestimating their audience. But when a community theater production of Welcome to Mitford is being accorded a longer running time in Fort Mill than your Julius Caesar in Uptown Charlotte, you ought to know that you've gone too far.

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