This is an exceptionally well realized interpretation in terms of production. The play collars and holds from the get-go, remains coherent, and puts one into the center of a cyclone rather than watching from its periphery. Point of view is clear and resonant, imagination omnipresent. Acting, alas, fares less well, yet overall doesn’t kill the experience.
The story: Going against the will of his people, Julius Caesar (Rocco Sisto – more weary than magisterial) is nonetheless victorious and returns to Rome greeted like a god. Cassius (Matthew Amendt – excellent) feels strongly the dictator is acquiring dangerously unchecked power. He sees honorable Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden – thoughtful) as the figurehead to lead revolution. Brutus is modest and loves Caesar, but agrees action must be taken.
A coalition of Senators plan to kill Caesar the morning of The Ides of March. They visit Brutus at home, after which his wife, Portia (Merritt Janson – a memorable turn, angry, dynamic, sensual), questions him to no avail. Meanwhile Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart- unconvincing), dreams he’ll be murdered. She tries to keep him home, but others are more clever.
Caesar is stabbed to death by every Senator present. Securing safe passage, the commander’s right arm, Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour – all about rhythm, not truth of content), wails over him. Because he swears allegiance to new order, Antony is allowed to orate over Caesar’s body. Brutus convinces the crowd they’ve been freed, then exits. Antony takes over, twisting words, whipping the populous into frenzy over the loss of a good and generous leader. He then joins with Octavius Caesar (Benjamin Bonefant – yoeman-like) against Brutus and Cassius at war.
Jordan Barbour (Antony)
Battle is formidably dramatized. Caesar’s ghost walks among them. Both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives – Cassius vigorously, Brutus with a whimper. Octavius and Antony promise the latter a distinguished funeral.
Director Shana Cooper, who helmed an earlier incarnation of this production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, emphasizes unending cycles of violence rather than a single incident. She also makes us more aware of women, several of whom play minor characters, and of Ceasar’s wife, Calphurnia, and Brutus’ wife, Portia. I don’t buy Calphurnia’s presence at Mark Antony’s burial speech. That she made her way so quickly through crowds from home and publicly exposes her grief seems unlikely. Portia’s demanding turn, on the other hand, which utilizes sex and honor as argument, rings vividly true and is masterfully envisioned.
Matthew Amendt (Cassius) and Brandon J. Dirden (Brutus)
The director’s use of Commedia dell’arte masks, unique, I think, to this play, is compelling, that one can understand those who speak from behind them, a testament to awareness. Caesar’s murder is believable because he demonstrably fights back. I’ve never seen more potent appearance/use of blood. That all murder weapons (knives) are secured from a single sheath is telling.
Outstanding Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch melds synchronized martial arts and dance. War scenes including stomping, kinetic movement, and aural sounds are visceral. Opposing camps distinctively appear and disappear from general throng with positioning and attitude.
Scenic Designer Sibyl Wickersheimer manifests a powerful essence of crumbling society with what looks like cracked stone, enormous draping, and a covered statue. Caesar’s sunken bath, a 20 foot (?) high hand-painted list of offenders are two of many splendid additions.
The Company (War)
Christopher Akerland’s highly dramatic Lighting Design adds to every environment and mood, controlling focus.
Modern day costuming in greys and khakis, suits and casuals, works except for Calpurnia’s pants which seem to cross a line. Outfitting, especially wigs, for the festival of Lupercal at the top of the play, is inspired. (The holiday originated in ancient times as religious celebration and fertility rite.) Tribal-like masks aptly unnerve and call out a people of one mind. (Raquel Barreto- Design)
Paul James Prendergast’s Sound Design offers dimensionality, both stealthy and viscerally disturbing.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein
Opening: Brandon J. Dirden (Brutus) and Rocco Sisto (Caesar)
Theatre For A New Audience presents
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Directed by Shana Cooper
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Through April 28, 2019