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Julius Caesar

Graham Winton and Earl Hindman in Julius Caesar
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
In the program for the Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, there is a quote from actor Daniel Oreskes in which he poses a question as it might have been voiced by his character Cassius in regard to the events of the play: "Did we do the wrong thing, or did we do the right thing the wrong way?" This is a succinct synopsis of Julius Caesar, a work that is best described in questions because it offers no answers.

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.

Michael Rogers, Justin Campbell, Thomas M. Hammond,
David Don Miller, Daniel Oreskes, and Simeon Moore
as the bloody conspirators in Julius Caesar
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
The Caesar of this production is Earl Hindman, perhaps best known as Tim Allen's next door neighbor Wilson on TV's Home Improvement. The large-framed Hindman, who has done other Shakespearean roles for TFANA, plays Caesar like a crumbling monolith, with hunched shoulders and a stiff and uncertain gait. He is surrounded by an equally fine ensemble. Thomas M. Hammond and Graham Winton are, respectively, Brutus and Marc Antony -- both characters resorting to dishonorable actions, one in the name of freedom and the other in the name of revenge. Simeon Moore, as the sniveling Casca, marvelously demonstrates that the conspirators' actions are driven as much by petty jealousy as patriotism in a speech in which he describes Caesar's reluctant refusal of the crown. Also making a positive impression are Hope Chernov as Caesar's concerned wife Calpurnia, Michael Rogers as the smooth-talking Decius Brutus, and Curzon Dobell as the creepy Soothsayer who warns Caesar to "beware the Ides of March."

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.

In the end, Oreskes's query continues to hang in the air: Did the conspirators do the wrong thing, or did they do the right thing the wrong way? Who knows? But this Julius Caesar is a compelling examination of the question.

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