Shakespeare Theatre: Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra
The Shakespeare Theatre is current offering the Bard’s two Roman history plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, in repertory. They are handsomely staged productions. The set, designed by James Noone, is a gorgeous combination of wood and metal. Three balconies and two large staircases are the playing field for the epic tale. The vastness gives the feeling of openness and freedom, yet when these stairs are moved into large wall units, the result is a cage-like atmosphere, used to good effect in the darker scenes of Julius Caesar. Also handsome are the traditional costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller. These togas and gowns are worn well by the actors, looking rich and stately.
Fearing Julius Caesar’s ambition and growing power, Caius Cassius plots with other senators to assassinate the leader. Cassius convinces Marcus Brutus to join the conspiracy. The play portrays the assassination and its bloody aftermath, as the war for power pits Brutus and Cassius against Marc Antony and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius.
Scott Parkinson looks the part of Cassius, though he is younger than this role is traditionally played. Parkinson clearly knows his Shakespeare, but his iambic pentameter is too careful, his delivery of the verse is too measured. As a result, it is less engaging than it should be. He improves in the second act and loosens up quite a bit. As I saw his performance extremely early in the run, there is reason to believe his delivery will continue to relax.
The production as a whole improves in the second act. True the first act is harder to pull off – it is mostly speeches and the reporting of action, rather than the action itself. This production doesn’t find its forward motion until Caesar’s assassination scene. This scene is very well staged, the tension is palpable. Unfortunately, as the war begins and battles come into play, this production cops out with its fight choreography. I have a personal dislike of slow motion fighting. It has never worked for me. Either do the fights, or just move onto the next scene.
Nancy Rodriguez’s Portia is far too overwrought. She plays both of her scenes at one emotional and pitch level. Beyond just not being interesting, it is taxing to have to listen to. Kim Martin-Cotten makes a far better impression in her short role as Calphurnia. Luckily, she gets more to do in Antony and Cleopatra where she takes on the role of Charmian, Cleopatra’s main attendant.
Dan Kremer brings a lot of bearing to Caesar, and Tom Hammond is an earnest Brutus, but neither manages to move our emotions. Indeed this is what is strange about this production of Julius Caesar. There are some really nice moments, but they are not the moments you expect. Three of the area’s best actors have been cast as the triumvirate (Andrew Long as Mark Antony, Aubrek K. Deeker as Octavius Caesar, and Ted van Griethuysen as Lepidus). These three have less to do in this play than in Anthony and Cleopatra but they are still so good that you kind of forget that Brutus and Cassius are the leads of Julius Caesar.
Andrew Long has created a flesh-and-blood Mark Antony. He is no saint, and deftly manipulates the crowd against the conspirators. Long gives a beautiful rendition of the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. It is one of those times where the actor is good enough that you forget you are listening to a speech you’ve heard many times before. He is helped by the fact that director David Muse has done an excellent job of staging the crowd scenes. This seems like a small thing to spend time talking about, but trust me, I’ve seen many lame and boring crowd scenes. The ensemble here is to be commended for their commitment to these scenes – they are all engaged and energetic, there are defined relationships among them, and no one pulls inappropriate focus. Long suavely draws the crowd to his side, and we in the audience are brought along with them. Long wins the crowd over completely when he reads Caesar’s will, in which Caesar has left much to the common people. Long later turns the will over, revealing to the audience that the paper is blank and he was lying. It is a bold and brilliant choice, one that fits right in with Long’s interpretation of the character.
David Muse’s staging of the very end of the play is also quite effective. The triumvirate is walking off after winning the war, exiting upstage center through that glorious, huge opening. Octavius slows, remaining apart from the two other men. He has a vision; banners of Caesar’s face appear about the stage. The ghost of Julius Caesar enters, up on the balcony. He is crowned with a laurel of golden leaves. He removes his crown and stretching his hand out, seems to offer it to Octavius. Though there are no words, the audience knows exactly what is going through Octavius’s head. Caesar is beckoning him to be his heir and rule – rule alone. Marc Antony and Lepidus re-enter, calling Octavius to them. He exits, his story far from over.
The staging of Julius Caesar points to the next play, and the talents of Long and Deeker especially make you really look forward to Antony and Cleopatra. And it turns out that you should.
Antony and Cleopatra picks up about two years after the events in Julius Caesar, but about ten years worth of historical action are compressed into the play, so the characters are written older. The triumvirate holds power over the Roman Empire, but Antony spends his time instead in Egypt, lying about with Cleopatra. Through the play he is torn between his love for Cleopatra and his duty to Rome.
Antony and Cleopatra is a difficult play to stage. The first challenge is to find an actor for Cleopatra that can fulfill all that the script requires. It is a tall order to find someone who lives up to Enobarbus’ report that “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” Suzanne Bertish nails the part. She truly embodies that description, for though she is stately and mature, she plays Cleopatra with a sense of youthfulness and energy. She navigates her many changes of mind most convincingly. And perhaps what is most difficult of all, while the audience sees her manipulating Antony and being capricious, we never grow tired of her machinations. Bertish pulls this off because her Cleopatra, though possessing many fronts, can still feel, can still be hurt, can still be desperate for the love of Antony. Through all of Cleopatra’s moods, Bertish continues to charm us; as Enobarbus says, “other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies; for vilest things / Become themselves in her.”
Andrew Long continues his excellent work from Julius Caesar. He has really managed to find a through line between these two plays. His interpretation of Antony in Julius Caesar sets the stage for his behavior in Antony and Cleopatra. Like Bertish, he finds immense variety in his performance, he grins with pleasured delight, he roars with anger, he is touched by sadness. It is truly delightful to watch actors the caliber of Long and Bertish play off one another.
The other challenge of Antony and Cleopatra is that the script can seem very disjointed. They are many short scenes, and the locations jump back and forth and back and forth. Thanks to Michael Kahn’s deft staging, this is not a liability. The production is well-paced and continues to move forward with energy.
The supporting players are strongly cast. Kremer takes on Enobarbus in this play, shows more range and has a lot more fun. It's a nice moment of casting - Kremer and Long play each other's right-hand man. We see more of van Griethuysen, dependable in any role, and Craig Wallace, who brings his impressive presence to the part of Pompey. Aubrey K. Deeker creates a complex Octavius. His Octavius is a trim man with dark thoughts, a calculating observer, who practically shakes with anger when his honor is insulted. Though with much ambition, he is still a man with nobility, and a man who can recognize nobility in others. The complexity that Deeker and Long bring to their roles allows us to understand why Octavius is so touched at the death of Marc Antony.
When you put the above actors all together on stage at once, the effect is electric. The scene where the triumvirate has made peace with Pompey and are celebrating and drinking with him is so energetic, so well staged, so informative and nuanced in terms of who these characters are and how they relate to each other, that it threatens to steal the show.
The ending of this play is likewise well-staged, and ties the two productions together. With the other members of the triumvirate out of the way, Octavius stand on the center platform, wearing Caesar’s laurel crown, and banners sporting his face drop from the rafters.
These productions do leave you wondering one thing, however. Will Kremer and Deeker be taking their respective banners home and hanging them on the wall? It would certainly be something unique to put over the mantle.
Through July 6th
Julius Caesar: 3 stars
Antony and Cleopatra: 4 stars