This is the second time we've seen this play at Ashland, and is a deep contrast to the previous version, where Caesar was portrayed by a woman.
The PlayOnce again, it's kind of pointless to try to summarize the play in a meaningful way if you don't already know it. Caesar is a populist demagogue whose rise to power troubles large factions of the establishment in the Roman Senate. This leads to a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar on the floor of the Senate, with each of the conspirators stabbing Caesar. The end result is essentially a civil war, with Octavius Caesar (Julius's adopted son) joining with Marc Antony against the remaining conspirators.
The ProductionThe setting for this play is relatively modern, with the walls surrounding the stage literally falling apart. We see Caesar's supporters as masked, almost rioting demonstrators, causing much consternation to the senators who represent the prevailing authority. Cassius (masterfully portrayed by Rodney Gardiner) and Caska (Stephen Michael Spencer) have a growing group quietly conspiring to get rid of Caesar (Armando Duran), but they really need to recruit Brutus (Danforth Comins) to join them. Brutus waffles, but eventually joins up.
So we have a bloodbath, followed by the famous funeral where Caesar loyalist Antony (Jordan Barbour) eloquently indicts the assassins while insisting on the honorable nature of Brutus in particular (the "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech).
The ensuing war is presented in a highly stylized fashion, intricately choreographed, which makes the individual deaths highly emotionally impactful. Between the eloquence of the actors and the design of the production, it's quite engrossing and really had all of our group talking about it for the rest of the afternoon. Some compared it stylistically with last year's NYC production of "A View from the Bridge," which I did not see, but which was apparently very influential.
Bottom LineI was impressed at what a different production this was from the last one we'd seen. Where the other was much more personal, much more about the relationships of the characters, this version put the focus more on group action and the individual contributions to them. There are still good scenes between individual characters. Caesar's scene with Calpurnia (Amy Kim Waschke), with her imploring him not to go to the Senate, is terrific, for example. Some of the designs don't work out as well, such as the wall covered with big rolls of paper that Antony writes the names of the conspirators on. But mostly the production is about people, not tricks and decorations, and as such it's quite powerful.
In a time when we all need to pay attention to the motivations of leaders and of the groups backing and opposing them, this production seemed spot on. This is a Julius Caesar for today.