In `Caesar,' the perils of politics

TheaterReview

October 14, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The start of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production of Julius Caesar is more exciting than both political conventions and all the debates combined.

OK. Maybe that's not saying much.

But when a throng of commoners briskly enters through the back of the theater, carrying one of their number on their shoulders and chanting "Caesar! Caesar! Caesar!" it's difficult not to get caught up in the moment. And when two threatening-looking black-garbed tribunes chase them off stage, the feeling that all is not well in the republic is palpable.

In this most political of seasons, director Tony Tsendeas and costume designer Debra Kim Sivigny have mounted a modern-dress version of one of Shakespeare's most political plays. It's a look that adds up-to-date resonance to the tragedy that is set in motion when the smug leader of a republic yearns to be monarch of an empire.

Yet the Shakespeare Festival's Julius Caesar doesn't quite live up to the promise of its bold opening scene and design elements (which also include John Raley's red-and-black set, whose central feature is a sharply pointed platform that juts out into the audience).

The production's chief difficulty stems from the portrayal of its main character. No, not proud Caesar, who is killed off halfway into the play (and is forcefully portrayed by Stephen Patrick Martin). Despite its title, Julius Caesar focuses primarily on Brutus. And Robert John Metcalf is simply not a gallant enough Brutus.

Metcalf portrays him as a thoughtful man who clearly has qualms about the course of action he has taken. Fair enough. But above all, Brutus is supposed to be the embodiment of stoicism, indeed, of Rome itself. And the way Metcalf plays him, he's so laid back - tired even - that he rarely seems fully engaged in his scenes, much less stoic (and not merely because the actor occasionally muffed a line at the performance I attended).

This shortcoming is especially unfortunate since most of the other performances are strong. Richard Pilcher's icy Cassius and Gus Demos' cynical Casca are both convincing as self-serving schemers. And Damon Boggess' charismatic Mark Antony exudes honor and decency, qualities he'll probably need if he hopes to keep Josh Thelin's pretty-boy Octavius in line.

As the opening scene suggests, director Tsendeas creates some robustly effective stage images. Another example comes when Antony addresses the masses at Caesar's funeral. At one point, Boggess' mournful Antony puts his hand to his chest. Covered with blood from shaking the hands of Caesar's killers, it leaves a red handprint on Antony's dark clothing, a visual metaphor for the way the conspirators' deed wounds his heart.

The murder scenes, staged by fight director Lewis Shaw, vary in intensity. Caesar's assassination is carried out almost in slow motion, and the sight of him stumbling around with a sword through his side looks contrived. In contrast, the rabble's killing of the innocent poet, Cinna, in the second half is a far ghastlier spectacle.

Julius Caesar launches the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's 10th anniversary season. Despite some flaws, the production's overall interpretive risks offer a good indication that the festival is coming of age. Without forcing a 2004 political analogy onto Shakespeare's text, Tsendeas' production renders its lessons in leadership both timely and cautionary.

Julius Caesar

Where: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 10 a.m. selected Wednesdays and Thursdays, through Oct. 31

Tickets: $20

Call: 410-366-8594

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