Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Julius Caesar"

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Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A.S. Waterman


JULIUS CAESAR:

The Emperor Needs a New Press Secretary

Reviewed by A.S. Waterman

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Judith Swift

Marcus Brutus........Jim O'Brien
Cassius........Chris Byrnes
Julius Caesar/Caesar's Ghost........Richard Donelly
Marc Antony........Anthony Estrella
Calpurnia/Lepidus........Alyn Carlson-Webster
Portia/Co-Anchor........Melissa Penick
Casca/Soldier........Scott Winters
Anchor/Cicero........Sam Babbitt
Artemidorus/Popilius Titinius........Gary Lait Cummings
Cinna/Lucilius/Guard........Mauro Canepa
Metellus Cimber/Messala/Guard........Steve Kidd
Octavius/Guard........Sean Michael McConaghy
Trebonius/Pindarus........Tom Oakes
Lucius........Mark McClure

"Good Morning Rome" fills the screen, as news co-anchors fill us in on the latest developments in Sardis. Political squabbles, news from the battlefront, the usual. Will Caesar be crowned? For full coverage, stay tuned. Our field reporters are on it.

Directors feel compelled to do Shakespeare, and many feel compelled to put a modern face on his work. The former is understandable. The latter, although it has yielded such classics as WEST SIDE STORY, more frequently results in a collective groan of "Now what?" Like Julius Caesar, The Gamm's production is ambitious; and like Caesar, it doesn't quite succeed.

In this production, Director Judith Swift shows us politicians in business suits, with a heavy media flair that touches on Bush administration politics and Iraq. From the beginning, this production is much too talky. Okay, so politics are talky, and political careers are all about talk. However, good theatre requires much more than that, and in this show the action builds so slowly that the murder of Caesar seems like a deus ex machina. Last night, more than a few people were nodding off by that point, and a number of seats weren't refilled after the intermission.

This production's prevailing trend toward flat delivery, in the already wordy speeches, led one to wonder whether some of the actors knew what they were saying. Many of the portrayals were flat as well. Most notably, Jim O'Brien's Brutus seemed to lack enough passion to be decisive about anything, let alone enough to lead an insurgency or kill a political leader. This is the noble hero who changed history? If so, his wooden mannerisms and vacant stare must have presented quite a challenge for the TV network. Clearly, his image consultant should be fired.

O'Brien, or the direction he was given, also spoils the potential for one of the show's few surprises. After being warned that the show would include a gunshot, we see Brutus wearing visible earplugs as he talks about suicide, leaving little doubt as to the outcome.

There were a few bright spots, including an interesting soundtrack, and a few clever twists, such as presenting the Soothsayer ("beware the ides of March") as a reporter (for print media, presumably, as he came armed with a tape recorder rather than a camera, and therefore low on the Rome media food chain). This lent a nicely humorous edge to Caesar's line "Who is it in the press that calls on me?" There were also two very good performances by actors Richard Donelly (Caesar) and Tony Estrella (Antony, and also The Gamm's Artistic Director). Donelly's Caesar bears little resemblance to today's political leaders, or at least to the ones that we know of. Instead, his Caesar is more like a corporate CEO, a cold business magnate with no conscience or compassion, the kind that many people believe to be truly running this country. Donelly's portrayal is chilling, and it is handled well. Although the production repeatedly emphasizes that the story is taking place in Rome, Caesar's widow is handed a folded American flag at his funeral, a poignant reminder that this type of emperor can only be "Made in America." In sharp contrast to the stoic, calculating Caesar, Tony Estrella's rendering of Marc Antony is vibrant and energetic, with a charisma that the audience is desperate for by the time he appears. Estrella's delivery is powerful, and he actually had the audience listening intently to what he said -- a rare occurrence on this particular night.

In most cases, it was difficult to make the connection between the staged action and the combination of news footage and clip-art photos displayed on the two large screens. The TV motif became annoying and interruptive after a while, as did the pseudo-pauses for photo ops. A sparse set conveyed little visual interest. Some overlapping dialogue was largely incoherent. In addition, the seats were very uncomfortable, which one very vocal patron attributed to the need to keep people awake. That goal proved to be ambitious also.

Overall, this is a tedious offering that will appeal only to those who can endure watching several hours of C-SPAN. Change the channel.

Julius Caesar runs through June 13, with evening performances Thursday through Saturday and matinees on Sunday afternoon. Tickets are $21 to $24.

"Julius Caesar" (13 May - 13 June)
THE SANDRA FEINSTEIN-GAMM THEATRE
172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI
1 (401) 723-4266

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