Cup in Hand: Cleopatra creates a cleavage between Antony and Rome.
Cup in Hand: Cleopatra creates a cleavage between Antony and Rome.

If Brutus is the noblest Roman of them all, then it stands to reason that Mark Antony has less nobility about him, but it’s an interesting wrinkle to make him a flat-out Machiavel. In Julius Caesar, the first half of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Roman Repertory at Harman Hall, Andrew Long’s Antony seems a genuine friend to Caesar at the start, counseling, protecting, soothing, even reaching out gently to still the emperor’s trembling hand so others won’t glimpse his frailty.

Later, upon seeing the savagery wrought by Brutus and his allies on March’s Ides, Antony sheds what appear to be real tears for a mentor lost. And when he brandishes Caesar’s will during his funeral oration, regaling the crowd with tales of their assassinated leader’s largesse, his grief feels palpable. You still have to credit him with being a wily manipulator as he whips the Roman rabble into a frenzy while claiming to lack Brutus’ gift for oratory, but his cause seems just, his emotions real.

Until, that is, the bloodthirsty mob rushes off to do its dirty work—his dirty work, really—and this Antony lets us see that the “will” he held up to them was blank parchment. He’s no statesman championing the little people of Rome but a mere operator, a crafty, unprincipled politician, as disreputable as the folks he claims are sullying the republic for which he stands.

How this spinmeister spins off into irrelevance and impotence will be the stuff of the repertory’s second half. Antony and Cleopatra will pick up the story a few years later, with Antony in thrall to a devious Egyptian queen who is not about to be out-manipulated in her own court. The lovers will prove no match for Octavius (Aubrey K. Deeker), the Roman general Antony bosses around so dismissively here. But all of that must wait; there’s a revolt to be put down first.

It’s a revolt that never generates much heat in David Muse’s staging, led by Tom Hammond’s stiff, uncharismatic Brutus, against Dan Kremer’s distracted, similarly unprepossessing Caesar. Both men, surrounded by followers nearly as undifferentiated as their senatorial togas, appear impressive mostly when situated on balconies, high above the throng. And when lesser folks stand out, it’s not always in ways that are dramatically useful. Scott Parkinson’s Cassius has a lean and mostly petulant look, Nancy Rodriguez turns Portia’s pleas to Brutus into a florid, woe-struck aria.

Still, there’s often an eloquence of gesture when Muse finds ways to blend intimacy into the surrounding spectacle, seen in Caesar’s brusque impatience on the morning of his assassination as he shrugs off both barbering attendants and his wife (a wonderfully natural Kim Martin-Cotten), and again in the shock with which he realizes there’s a knife in a hand he’s reached out to for support.

Otherwise, the pageantry in Caesar keeps you forever looking ahead to scenes that haven’t yet played. If the director has sufficient multitudes backstage that he can turn the assassination scene quasi-operatic, with a dozen Roman senators frozen in horror as seven of their brethren plunge daggers into Caesar, it stands to reason he’ll be able to muster quite a crowd for the funeral orations. And when you see 40 or so onlookers perched on balconies and staircases lending Antony their ears, it’s hard not to anticipate how grand they’ll all look once Jennifer Moeller has attired them in leather breastplates and feathered helmets for the battle scenes. (The reality proves disappointing in that last instance, with sparsely populated, twilit clashes waged in slow-motion.)

But the massing of multitudes is just one of the requirements of a persuasive Julius Caesar, and as grand as this one often looks, it can be awfully static when folks aren’t rushing either on- or offstage.