Fickle Bag: Caesars characters make for easy convincing.s characters make for easy convincing.
Fickle Bag: Caesars characters make for easy convincing.s characters make for easy convincing.

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It takes only a slight turn of the wheel to change who is the faulty star of Julius Caesar. In director Robert Richmond’s hungry new cut for the Folger Theatre, Louis Butelli’s Cassius, the rebellion’s whispering sparkplug, feels like a more active insurgent than in past tellings. But it’s Anthony Cochrane’s noble, conscience-wracked Brutus who makes the show feel as weighty and grave as it does.

Richmond’s production begins with the cast in cloaks and hoods, their forms and faces indecipherable. Groaning and writhing under Jim Hunter’s sickly green lighting (Richmond’s Richard III at the Folger last winter used a pea-soup palette, too), they look like wraiths, trapped between the dimensions.

It’s an apt visual hook for a story that, for all its supernatural signs and portents, is really about suggestibility—not just that of Rome’s commoners, but of their rulers, too. Everyone is forever being persuaded. Cassius convinces Brutus that Caesar is a tyrant-in-waiting who must be slain to preserve the republic. Caesar resists, then yields to his wife Calpurnia’s entreaty that he stay home from the Senate, where his assassins wait for him—until Casca comes to his door and changes his mind a second time. Antony, in the play’s most famous speech, inveigles the commoners to turn on Brutus and the conspirators. Eventually, Cassius is fooled by a false report from the battlefield and orders his own death.

Everyone is someone else’s puppet, no more in command of his own destiny than one of those faceless, speechless wraiths. Eventually, those hooded figures open their fists to scatter crimson petals, forewarning us of the bloodletting to come. (In the battle at Philippi, Mariah Hale’s costumes take their cues from World War I–era fatigues and gas masks—at least as scary as those hoods.)

Eric Shimelonis’ booming, low-frequency score and soundscape, and the curls of steam (or dry ice) rising from the soothsayer’s stone bowl at the center of Tony Cisek’s stone-edifice set, reinforce the atmosphere of deprivation and doom, lending this Caesar an urgency the play often lacks.

Some of that juice comes from Richmond’s unconventional pacing: He flashes forward to Caesar’s assassination as Nafeesa Monroe’s soothsayer sooth-says (er, foretells) it, placing the conspirators at the foot of the stage, daggers drawn. The “real” killing, seen moments later, is stylized differently, ramping from slow motion to life-speed and back. (Casey Kaleba, one of D.C.’s busiest fight directors, handled the violence.) Michael Sharon’s fey Caesar, who looked awfully pleased with himself when declaiming to his wife that “cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once,” fights back but is overwhelmed. It feels less portentous than its foreshadowed account, as if to signal that Caesar’s death will not have the medicinal effect on Rome that Brutus hoped.

The show belongs to Cochrane, whose mighty shoulders droop beneath the weight of the whole failed plot, but Butelli’s serpentine performance as Cassius is equally revelatory. Sunken-cheeked and hollow-eyed, he, not Casca, has “a lean and hungry look.” As Casca, that scheming tribune whom Caesar wishes were fatter, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh sports the most minutely landscaped beard since Wes Bentley’s in The Hunger Games. His natural geniality makes him a devious pick for the guy who comes to Caesar’s house and beckons him to his death.

Grave does not mean humorless. It’s tough to parse how Shirine Babb, as Portia, Brutus’ plus-one, earns a laugh simply by limping in her next scene after she stabs herself in the thigh to prove herself worthy of her brooding husband’s confidence, but she pulls it off. The murder of Cinna the Poet (he’s mistaken by a mob for Cinna the conspiring senator, one of the small number of scenes wholly credited to Shakespeare, as opposed to Plutarch’s Lives) can’t help but be funny when a member of the crowd answers his protests with “Tear him for his bad verses!” And as Mark Antony, Maurice Jones turns that deathless “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech realigning the sympathies of the crowd into an absurdist sales pitch that might’ve cold-opened a Saturday Night (Obviously) Live in 44 B.C. Once those wraiths have shown us their faces, all we can do is laugh.

The best thing in How We Got On, a featherweight but fully disarming musical about aspiring suburban rappers set to the PG-rated beats of Reagan-era hip-hop, is The Selector. As embodied by Alina Collins Maldonado, she’s the show’s fake DJ, narrator, Greek chorus, and—most amusingly—the actor who, despite her long, curly hair and curvy figure, plays the fathers of both Hank and Julian, the two 15-year-olds whose rap rivalry-cum-partnership the play follows. She signals her transformation from Hank’s stern but loving dad into Julian’s alcoholic, unsteadily employed pop merely by shifting her posture and the cadences of her speech. Cadences, after all, are everything in rap.

The Selector’s turntables sit atop a sort of pyramid of obsolete amusement devices courtesy of props designer Gina Grundman. There’s a console television, dual-cassette boomboxes, and an overhead transparency projector that got a nostalgic round of applause at the show’s press performance when she flicked it on. Or maybe we were cheering for the artifact whose image that projector threw onto the back wall of the Round House Silver Spring’s cavernous black box: an Akai MPC60, an influential sampler, sequencer, and drum machine that hit the market in 1988, when How We Got On is set. Winning one of the pricey beat-making devices in a song contest becomes the mission of Hank (Manu Kumasi), a studious verse-writer who loses a rap battle to Julian (Thony Mena). Julian’s superior flow is secondhand, though; he can’t write his own rhymes, at least not like Hank can. Their promising writing-performing partnership is threatened, as so many adolescent male friendships are, by the arrival of a girl: Kashayna Johnson’s Luann, the daughter of a pro baller who’s proud to have enough money to move his family to the ’burbs (1988, remember). He doesn’t approve of rap, so Luann nurtures her prodigious gift for it in secret.

There isn’t much tension in Idris Goodwin’s nostalgic script, widely produced since its premiere at the Humana Festival for New American Plays two years ago. But Paige Hernandez’s production pulses with youthful energy, particularly once Kumasi, Mena, and Johnson—each one radiating a charisma measurable in megawatts—get to rhyme and dance. (Hernandez did the choreography and, with Thomas Sowers, the rap coaching, and the music numbers are buoyant and strong.) One sequence, wherein the members of the trio each stand on separate corners of the stage working on their parts of a song individually, as though unaware of the mosaic their rhymes are creating, is especially thrilling.

Goodwin has drained the sex, danger, and rebellion from this music, true. But it feels deliberate, like Spike Lee’s decision to omit drugs from circa 1989 Bed-Stuy in Do the Right Thing to foreground the film’s main subject of race relations. Goodwin has dialed down the other thrills and frights of adolescence to tell a story of budding artists learning to trust their voices. Whether you’re writing “Fuck Tha Police” or “Parents Just Don’t Understand”—both were hits in ’88—that struggle is universal.

Julius Caesar shows at 201 East Capitol Street, SE. $40-$75. (202) 544 7077. How We Got On shows at 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $30-$35. (301) 588-8279.