James Waterston and Jim True-Frost in Julius Caesar
(© Michael Lutch)
James Waterston and Jim True-Frost in Julius Caesar
(© Michael Lutch)
Usually, when directors crank Shakespeare through the time machine, they're intent on pushing some sort of contemporary-resonance agenda. That doesn't seem to be the case with French director Arthur Nauzyciel's mostly riveting Camelot-era rendition of Julius Caesar, being presented at A.R.T. Or if it is, any such subtext seems to have been overwritten by intervening imperatives.

Judging from the palimpsest of program notes, Nauzyciel may have started out in the "history repeats itself" vein but ended up declaring that "The production isn't set in the '60s -- I believe that all theatre takes place here and now." As a result, his interest in the era is apparently limited to the surface aesthetics, from the sleek suits and skinny ties that have the senators looking like Rat Packers to the elaborate coifs and hostess gowns that enable their consorts (Sara Kathryn Bakker, who plays both Portia and Calpurnia) to bridge Roman Culture and its Mod revival.

But even this unified look, and the Warhol-style silkscreens of Caesar's face that proliferate at play's end, don't fully represent the director's evolving vision. A last-minute program insert was apparently deemed necessary to clarify his ultimate disposition: We're meant to view the proceedings as if from the perspective of a "dreaming child" -- Brutus' young slave, Lucius (here portrayed by Jared Craig as deaf-mute all-American boy who sports Superman PJs). There's also a jazz trio on the side and a backdrop designed by Riccardo Hernandez, which is a mirror image of the theatre seats we're occupying, only they're empty. So it's little wonder the overall artistic impetus seems a bit diffuse. What's remarkable, though, is that the text is allowed to float free in all its glory.

Given that the first half of the play is nearly all expository, it helps tremendously to have Mark L. Montgomery's Cassius, possessed not only of the requisite "lean and hungry look," but also the accompanying soul -- one riddled with bitterness and envy. Montgomery shows us someone fully cognizant of his own limitations: Cassius knows he's not the kind of natural-born leader whom the populace would ever clasp to its malodorous bosom.

But his proxy, Brutus, ought to be. Unfortunately, Jim True-Frost -- a Steppenwolf regular best known for playing "Prez" in the HBO series The Wire -- conveys the appearance, voice, and comportment of a mild-mannered, mid-level Madison Avenue ad man. This may be by design, but the choice puts a cipher at the center of the action. Conversely, Thomas Derrah's Caesar is a strutting bantam who retains just enough humanity to make us flinch as he endures his "three and thirty wounds" --or we might do so, if the scene weren't choreographed like an aerobics workout, the attackers panting and grunting rhythmically in unison. It's like a Blue Man Group routine gone hideously awry.

But the murder at least makes way for Marc Antony's famously insidious funerary tribute, delivered with a refreshing directness and lack of oratorical flourish by James Waterston. Still, it's all downhill from there, maybe because the play becomes boring Brutus' story -- although there's one interesting interlude in which Cassius accosts him like an insecure lover -- and maybe because the running time approaches three-and-a-half hours.

And while there's clearly some deep import enfolded into Nauzyciel's decision to have slain warriors rise again to help their comrades across the portal of death, it reads like a practical move to compensate for the fact that the dramatic personae-to-cast ratio is roughly two-to-one and there aren't too many live bodies left to help out.

Nauzyciel has had limited exposure in this country thus far, but there's enough originality and daring on view in this production to augur significant contributions to come.