Political principles tangle with personal rivalries in this repertory standard, and though it’s usually clear what motivates each of the lesser characters, subtler productions leave room to wonder which force drove Marcus Brutus.
At the Folger Theatre, though, Rome is a ’30s-movie sort of place, a stark and stylized Power Central where a Mussolini-esque Caesar dominates the populace through sheer force of personality, while a faceless parade of civil servants schemes to unseat him. And though the imported Aquila Theatre production has a great many things going for it—striking visuals, snappy timing, and sharply staged crowd scenes—the dazzling style supports a central conceit that costs the play much of its critical character complexity. With a tin-pot dictator strutting around in military drab and mirrored sunglasses, there’s precious little space for doubt about the futile nobility of poor Brutus’ intentions.
Director Robert Richmond signals his sympathies early. A half-seen crowd cries “Hail, Caesar” in the distance as a tinny circus band riots its way through a lighthearted musical vamp, but all too rapidly the sound morphs into a vaguely chilling military tattoo. Shabbily dressed commoners cede the stage to a phalanx of chic power couples, all giving that stiffly formal parade wave used by beauty queens and Evita-wannabes everywhere—and suddenly we’re in Fascist Italy. By the time the great man himself appears on a lofty and unapproachable balcony far upstage, it’s hard to miss the message: Rome’s mighty military hero has begun to let the people’s affection go to his head, and reasonable people are right to worry about the uniformed figures moving constantly through the shadows.
In such a charged atmosphere, the conniving blandishments of Caius Cassius, author of much of the play’s trouble, seem nothing if not reasonable. And as he begins the campaign of flattery and rhetoric that will win Brutus to the conspirators’ camp, Aquila’s menacingly silky Louis Butelli challenges him with conviction and outraged pride. Head shaved and eyes aglitter, this Cassius has a lean and hungry look—and a jittery, anxious way of talking with his expressive hands. If the constant fidgeting occasionally shades into distracting mannerism, it nonetheless adds a kind of aggrieved and nervous energy to Butelli’s characterization, suggesting that Caesar is right to judge by appearances.
Marcus Brutus, that conflicted champion of the republican ideal, is himself no mean judge of Cassius’ character. Shakespeare makes it clear from the first that Brutus is wise to the self-interested motivations of the various conspirators—yet just vain enough, fond enough of his own arguments, and proud enough of his role as the common man’s patron to decide that yes, it is best to pull Caesar down before he can become a full-blown tyrant. Anthony Cochrane cuts a powerful and dignified figure as the compelling tragic hero Brutus, turning in a solid, unshowy performance that gives the production a human anchor and grounds Richmond’s often-surreal concept in concerns that have currency in the real world. Cochrane’s Brutus is as complex and moody as the haunting score the actor has composed for the production. Indeed, he is occasionally a figure of too much gravitas, if only because he shows up the relative weakness of others in the cast.
David Caron, playing Mark Antony, isn’t among those less sturdy players, nor is Lisa Carter, whose brief but indelible appearances as Brutus’ wife, Portia, contribute no small measure of the evening’s emotional heft. Musical with language and assured in her stage demeanor, Carter is a striking presence. Although she is more sympathetic as Portia than as the callow young opportunist Octavius Caesar—whose ascendancy at the play’s conclusion sets a final seal on the futility of Brutus’ course—she’s vibrant and compelling whether in military trousers or a matron’s shift.
Alex Webb is less satisfying as Caesar, though he makes an effort (sometimes a strained one) to show the self-doubt behind the triumvir’s shameless pandering to the affections of the mob. Mark Cameron Pow’s Casca, too, is an overly studied portrait, though of unearned patrician contempt for the rabble.
Richmond’s taste for flamboyant staging turns out to be as much a liability as an asset. There are unquestionably brilliant moments: When the conspirators skulk about during the famous tempest scene, they pass daggers from hand to hand, anonymous behind enormous umbrellas that glow an eerie purple under Peter Meineck’s lights. The visitation in Brutus’ battlefield tent is provocatively creepy, too, a consummately theatrical summoning that conjures Caesar’s vengeful shade from a billow of pale fabric and a wash of hot red light.
But for every third inspiration, there’s an unwieldy stock composition, a stage picture that takes more time to set up and execute than it’s worth, a scene that rings false: slow-motion battles; an awkwardly played bit that sets Cassius up as just a petulant boy in need of a hug; a hollow, unconvincing recapitulation of Calpurnia’s nightmare visions; the striking-but-seen-it-before Greek-drama gesture that finds Caesar’s murderers pulling red silk streamers from the wounds they’ve made. They’re all lapses into obviousness, and they’re all rooted in the same drive to lead the audience that informs the production’s overall reductive conceit. CP