Greg HIcks, Darrell D'Silva (foreground)
and company in Julius Caesar
(© Stephanie Berger)
Greg HIcks, Darrell D'Silva (foreground)
and company in Julius Caesar
(© Stephanie Berger)
There's a visceral and even sometimes thrilling savagery inherent in Lucy Bailey's staging of Julius Caesar, which the Royal Shakespeare Company is now performing in rep at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. It's certainly a robust interpretation, but in overly concentrating on the ambience of the production, Bailey and the company often lose sight of the human drama that propels the Bard's Roman tragedy.

There's little question that the opening sequence that Bailey has added for the show is unforgettable. Two filthy, loinclothed young men, Rome's mythical founders Romulus (Tunji Kasim) and Remus (Joseph Arkley), claw, bite and wrestle, grunting like animals, to the death. This is, without a doubt, a city and empire established on a foundation of murderous bloodlust.

Equally powerful is Bailey's staging of the play's first scene, in which the citizens of Rome are celebrating the victory that Caesar (Greg Hicks) has had over Pompey. As rose petals waft down onto the stage from the rafters, public officials flog the revelers into submission. The action onstage is complemented by black and white video (from scenic and video designer William Dudley), which shows other celebrants refracted in mirror images, giving the sense -- in a Busby Berkeley fashion -- of a cast of thousands.

It's a chaotic and cruel vision for the world and in some instances, most notably when Caesar is assassinated in the Senate. There's a bloodhirsty frenzy to the way in which the conspirators, including Cassius (John Mackay) and finally Brutus (Sam Troughton) lunge and fly at their victim. Similarly, once war has broken out over control of Rome, the production surges with fierceness as clanging swords and shields echo through the theater, and once again, the action on stage is augmented by Dudley's fine video work.

But unfortunately, the moments that come in between these scenes of testosterone-filled brutality are stretches of intense human drama and astonishing political rhetoric that underwhelms, given the surface interpretations of the central characters.

Troughton (recovering from an injury incurred in another of the company's productions) delivers an entirely credible turn as Brutus, speaking the text well and bursting with fury as the action becomes more fraught, but the actor rarely manages to communicate the man's conflicted intellectual life. As Cassius, Mackay delivers a performance that's filled with intensity and neurosis, so much so that one wonders why anyone might find him credible as a political ally.

As Caesar, Hick spreens like a rockstar and tempers this grandiosity with an intriguing paranoia, while Darren D'Silva turns Mark Antony into a brawny party-guy with anger control issues. His outburst at the crowd at the beginning of the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" oratory genuinely surprises and helps the performer in recasting the all-too-familiar address in a new, fresh light.

In less central roles, theatergoers will find the performers' work ranges from Oliver Ryan's caricatured, thug-like performance as the conspirator Casca to Hannah Young's passionately conceived turn as Brutus' wife Portia. Curiously, it's a spectrum of work that's vaguely understandable given Bailey's extreme vision of ancient Rome.