By Tristan Lejeune
Expressive in movement and light, with just enough sound effects and closed-circuit TV footage to make a lab space feel full, Scena Theatre’s Julius Caesar shows the strengths of a black-box production: It’s intimate without feeling small, tightly controlled without being mechanical.
And of course by its nature it’s going to be political, but you knew that coming in. Does a 400-year-old play (written under an inherited monarchy) about a dictator’s 2,061-year-old assassination (undertaken with the intention of restoring an extremely creaky republic) speak to our own sharply divided democracy? Eh, don’t think so hard. Julius Caesar has more to say about honor, fate, ambition, valor, and loyalty than it does about representing the will of the people. “The mob,” after all, is the dumbest character on stage.
Heather Jackson’s costumes take a journey from natty double-breasted suits to the leather jackets and berets of war, and Jonathan Alexander’s lights and Denise Rose’s sound roil from fear to rage and back again. You won’t be blown away by this show, but it takes you for a panoramic walk.
Scena’s Caesar is both modern-day Rome and D.C., which is confusing, with the monitors showing now the Coliseum, now the Washington Monument, now random cumulonimbus clouds. But don’t worry: Caesar doesn’t look like any presidents you might know.
Robert McNamara, who also directed the piece, does a great job with the title role, dignified but very chewy. You particularly enjoy when it looks as though he hates to deliver that unlikely Shakespearean cliche, “Et tu, Brute?”
At 110 minutes with no intermission, the script has suffered more cuts that Julius himself, but, like Caesar’s ghost, it still walks and talks just fine. There are moments that feel rushed — and others where actors stepped on each other’s lines in their haste — but generally the rapidity serves well. The only part that has surely suffered in all the bloodletting is Ian Blackwell Rogers’s Brutus. He’s never been one of Shakespeare’s favorite protagonists, but there are productions where you believe his transitions more. Or perhaps: Rogers made an acting choice that Brutus is unchanged by murdering his friend and being driven to Greece — he did always think he was doing the right thing, after all. He certainly embraces a noble suicide without a qualm.
Making more use of their wiggle room are Barry McEvoy’s Mark Antony and David Bryan Jackson’s Cassius. McEvoy skillfully undersells everything but the big speech (the dueling eulogies do not disappoint), which has to be played up. Unclear if the actor would do as well opposite a Cleopatra — he might be more fighter than lover — but in this place and time, he steals scenes. And you really feel for Jackson’s Cassius; Brutus is always moral, but Cassius is always correct. Not only does Jackson not hide the yearning for power, he uses it to help get the audience on his side.
The chorus adds a lot to the proceedings, too, particularly Amanda Forstrom, who brings soul to the small roles of Portia and Messala, and Ron Litman (full disclosure: a friend of this critic), who fills the stage in his scenes as Casca.
By pure coincidence, I just this week finished rewatching HBO’s Rome, that artful but ruinously expensive costume drama that tried to be as non-Shakespearean as possible with the material. More than two millennia after they died, everyone still knows the names of Caesar, Brutus, Anthony, and Octavius, and people will always revisit their stories.
This depiction of their deaths and lives, going on at the Atlas Performing Arts Center until September 24, is not exactly a revelation. But it’s more than worthy of a discerning theatregoer’s time, and after all: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.