Theater Review: Julius Caesar Maintains Tradition with Visual Flair

Andrew Borba, Artistic Director of The Chautauqua Theater Company, guides PlayMakers’ production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with a keen focus on adhering to the intentions of the original text. 

Julius Caesar is full of well-known speeches and an equally familiar plot. The title character is killed by a group opposed to his almost God-like status, and then that group of murderers suffers fatal consequences. What propels the plot is first the dilemma the conspirators face just to commit the deed, and then their attempt to manage in the aftermath. 

Although Borba switches up this version of Shakespeare’s play with some decisive cross-gender casting, he maintains its tradition, for the most part. He has also assembled an impressive cast to deliver the highly nuanced individual performances demanded by the structure of the piece.

C. David Johnson provides us with a very believable Julius Caesar. He is equally imposing as he is pompous, full of ego and easily flattered. He’s returned to Rome triumphant, his soldiers adore him, but some members of the Senate are troubled by his ascent to power. Lisa Wolpe’s Cassius, the one most bothered by Caesar’s rise in popularity, offers a sleekly seductive and dynamic portrait of the chief instigator of the rebellion, convincing Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Brutus to participate in Caesar’s assassination to save the Republic. Cornell effectively communicates both the nobility of his position and the turmoil his character experiences.

Samuel Ray Gates portrays Casca, an affable and willing co-conspirator. He doesn’t seem overly concerned with any of the implications of Caesar’s impending murder. As the wife of Brutus, Kathryn Hunter-Williams enriches her brief appearance as Portia with a commanding awareness that all is not right with her husband. AhDream Smith embodies her Caphurnia, wife of Caesar, with palpable anxiety and credible fear.

Despite the fact that Brutus centers much of the play, Mark Anthony represents its passionate core, and Tia James soars in her portrayal of the one most loyal to Caesar. She redeems the reputation of the former general and dismantles Brutus’ reasoning in an impassioned delivery directed as much to the audience as it is to the Roman citizens onstage. 

Probably most impressive is the magnificent set designed by Jan Chambers. An imposing, over-sized statue of Caesar’s head, with numerous cracks in it, looms from the top of marble steps that already seem to be blood-stained. Roman columns across the back of the stage metaphorically show signs of crumbling, and the jagged fault line across center stage suggests the divisiveness that is coming. Katie McGee’s lighting magnifies the tense and graphic tone, while Gier Coleman’s costumes subtly connect ancient Rome with modern-day, underscoring the timelessness of the story.

This exquisite production of Julius Caesar boasts some truly standout performances and extraordinary attention to even the smallest detail, yet I was hoping for a bit more intensity. Caesar’s death is inevitable from the beginning, and the pace seemed designed to accomplish the deed, not to contemplate motives or wrestle with the dangers of the decision. Cassius and Brutus have some fierce moments in the latter half of the play, with a truly poignant parting, but other character connections felt perfunctory. Essentially, the tragedy of it felt muted. 

Still, this rendition is breathtaking. And while it may allude to the need to take down a potential tyrant, it also warns of the consequences of radical action which is perhaps a more than subtle reminder of our need to come together in these divided times.

Due to COVID-19, the PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Julius Caesar has closed. For an updated list of COVID-19 cancellations and postponements, visit the RDU on Stage list of resources.

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