For their inaugural production at Back-to-One Acting Studio, Scrap Paper Shakespeare chose Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The plot line is mostly familiar: a group of Romans conspire to assassinate a leader they believe is gaining too much power. While claiming to save Rome as their motivation, these conspirators plunge the country into civil war, as well as destroy themselves in the process. This is a history play, which like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, has a high body count.
In this version, which Emma Szuba adapted and directed, a contemporary flair dominates. With dress modernized – business suits, or casual Friday attire when not in battle uniforms – accessibility to the story is front and center. A minimalistic set, actually just a raised platform, curtain drapes at the back, and a podium gives notice that the focus will be on experiencing the drama, urging the audience to be present with the actors. It is a noble and ambitious pursuit by a new young company.
And this cast of seven worked hard to convey the divided attitudes toward Caesar. Looking polished and refined, Nicholas Tycho Reed’s Cassius smoothly manipulates the fears and insecurities of Bryson David Hoff’s Brutus, convincing him that the death of Caesar is for the good of Rome. Both actors carried the weight of their roles well and ignited some real intensity in their scenes together.
Hayden Tyler’s Caesar exuded righteous confidence layered with a bemused disdain that both charms and inflames. (Props for stepping into the role the week before opening night.) This Caesar seems to court the dissent from his loyal followers, and yet some of the encounters between the trio didn’t fully convey the depth of their relationships, muting the subsequent impact of the ultimate betrayal. Even Meg Kessinger’s Mark Antony felt emotionally restrained; both her funeral speech and response to the death of Brutus could have exhibited a bit more passion.
Three cast members executed the multiple supporting roles with athletic skills in costume changes to designate their characters. Jennifer Daly had some of the best lines in her turn as Casca, while Rebecca Ashley Jones and Naima Said exerted great energy.
Much of the tension in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar derives from the interactions of the four main characters, circling each other as loyalties shift and mutate. Instead of grounding this part of the drama, too much attention seemed spent on highlighting other aspects, particularly the lengthy battle scenes at the end which at one point became somewhat confusing.
Like too many layers of paint on a canvas, many elements felt overworked in this production. And though this is an inherent risk for any young director and company trying to take chances with a classic play, it can also reveal the first steps of coalescing into something quite wonderful in the future.