The play dramatizes the assassination of the venerated Roman emperor Caesar, who, in 44 B.C. was murdered by a group of senators, chief among them Cassius and Brutus. Director Karin Coonrod's stylized take on Shakespeare's version of this historical event is gripping, immediate, and haunting. As the emperor is celebrated by the Roman citizens -- sound designer Mark Bennett provides music that is triumphal but ominous -- two politicians rue the public's desire to make Caesar king. Cassius convinces Brutus, who loves Caesar but loves freedom more, that the emperor who would be king must be dispatched for the sake of the empire. At first reluctant, Brutus comes to agree, and other conspirators are brought on board.
These scenes leading up to the murder are skillfully handled by Coonrod. A wicked storm accompanies Brutus's late night deliberations but seems to subside once he has finally resolved to lead the assassination. From there, an eerie stillness underscores the urgency of the hours leading up to Caesar's death. It is 3am in the time of the play when our attention is first drawn to the chimes of the clock -- we know that the men will be going to the Capitol to meet Caesar at 8am -- and, unsettlingly the bells continue to sound periodically as the time for the bloody event approaches. Caesar's wife begs her husband not to go to the Capitol on account of the night's bad omens, her own dream of his death among them; when she at first gains and then loses his promise to stay home, her fear and sadness are palpable.
The actual murder at the Capitol is equally compelling, and even better is the following scene in which Brutus, Cassius, and Marc Antony -- who arrives to find his friend Caesar dead -- engage in what we now refer to as "damage control." Brutus and Antony easily manipulate the noisy rabble to their own purposes, and the mixture of grand Shakespearean tragedy and timeless political maneuvering is fascinating.
This Julius Caesar runs no more than two hours without intermission, but once Marc Antony has delivered his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech -- which leaves the impressionable public convinced that Brutus, Cassius, and company are traitors who must be punished -- the tone of the play alters and the pace slows down. It's fitting that Coonrod allows the pace to slacken once the 'main event' has occurred, but this is a case where an intermission may have been helpful in facilitating the shift and the passage of time that occurs between (1) the murder and its immediate aftermath, and (2) the less-thrilling latter part of the play, which focuses on the alliance of Antony with Caesar's heir Octavius and the friendship of Cassius and Brutus.
Focusing on the questionable ethics of the characters, this production brings clarity to the play through good acting and inventive direction. Though these Romans wear suits and ties rather than togas, there are no heavy-handed, muddled attempts to compare their politics to our own; Coonrod and company seem to realize that this is not necessary, since Shakespeare's politicians are already recognizable to the ages. It's kind of shocking, actually, for one who hasn't come across the play since 10th grade to discover how almost every other line offers a nugget of wisdom on subjects as wide ranging as government and fate.