Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006

Once again the good folks at the Bakerloo Theatre Project are offering a special discount to GailSez readers! Mention this Web site at the box office at any Thursday or Sunday performance of “Julius Caesar” or “Antigone” and pay just $5!!

Like Eleanor Holdridge’s Hamlet currently running at Shakespeare & Company, the Barkerloo production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Ryan Howe, uses a pared down cast, a spare set, and purposeful lighting to clear away the clutter and show the central story and main characters in sharp focus. Both productions use costumes not associated with the period in which the play is set. In this case the uniforms of modern corporate cultural are worn in the first half, and the uniforms of contemporary guerilla warfare are worn in the second.

And in both cases purists may object to the cutting of the script and the reassignment of some lines to different characters in order to perform the piece with fewer actors. To those people I once again place the argument that most of the Shakespearean canon comes to us filtered through many centuries of meddling by actors, directors, and printers/publishers. There is no doubt that the words spoken are the ones we commonly accept as Shakespeare’s and the story told is the story Shakespeare told. I accept this manner of presentation as legitimate and noteworthy.

Julius Caesar, which Shakspeare based on Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, is fairly historically accurate. The assassination of Julius Caesar was a well-told tale with which his audience would have been very familiar, so not too many liberties could be taken with the facts. What Shakespeare embellished on was the characters.

In case your Roman and Shakespearean history is a bit rusty, here’s a brief plot synopsis. Julius Caesar (July, 110-March 15, 44 BCE) was a brilliant military strategist and political leader. He was one of those geniuses with whom it is impossible to compete, but even if there had been someone who could have bettered him on the battlefield or in the Senate, assassination was the common way of getting rid of leaders in those days. The play opens at the Festival of Lupercalia on the Ides of February (February 15 – the term “Ides” simply means the middle of the month) where Caesar three times publicly refuses a coronet proffered by Antony. There Caesar is warned by the soothsayer to “Beware the Ides of March,” which come swiftly and bring with them Caesar’s assassination in the forum. The tides of fortune change at Julius Caesar’s funeral, where Antony’s words turn the citizenry against the conspirators and war ensues. Antony joins forces with Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s blood nephew and adopted son, and an elderly war hero, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to rule Roman and do battle against Brutus, Cassius, Casca, the other conspirators, and their supporters. Ultimately the conspirators are killed or commit suicide, clearing the way for Octavius Caesar (later Caesar Augustus) to become the first Roman Emperor, the very role the conspirators feared that Julius Caesar was seeking.

As Ophelia’s is the true tragedy in Hamlet, so Brutus’ is the true tragedy in Julius Caesar. Brutus is the character most fully drawn, and it is his death that ends the play, not Caesar’s. But Cassius’ story runs a close second, and Mark Antony presents a third intriguing character, whose later tragic end in the arms of Cleopatra forms the basis of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Howe has cast women as Cassius (Marsha Harman) and Antony (Gwyn Hervochon) and men as Julius Caesar (John Steffenauer) and Marcus Brutus (Eric Chase). Harman, Hervochon, and Chase are powerful performers who each delineate and define these politicians with agonizing clarity. Steffenauer is a lesser actor, but his is the tall, all-American, clean-cut, Ivy League image of the successful politician.

Howe and costume designer Alaina Salks make it very clear that these are 21st century American politicians (Caesar’s coffin is draped in the American flag), and to see these actors and actresses, in their tightly fitted and buttoned grey and black suits, slick exteriors masking corrupt and ambitious souls, is merely to see new faces wearing the uniform and speaking the words we hear every day on the news. It is eerie and effective.

Hervochon delivers Antony’s famous eulogy (“Friends, Romans, countrymen…”) with astonishing contemporary relevance. Haven’t I heard some version of the following lines from just about every politician running for office?:
“But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man…
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know…”

Chase is a truly tragic and conflicted Brutus. Historians generally agree that Brutus could have been a leader of Rome if he had not had the misfortune to live in the glare of Julius Caesar’s brilliance, and if he had not been persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy. Had he only been less ambitious and more willing to hitch his wagon to Caesar’s star the history of western Europe would have been decidedly different.

There are only two female roles in Julius Caesar – Brutus’ wife Portia (Sarah Murphy) and Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Jillian Dailey). Both are relegated to helpless hand-wringing as the men they love go off to certain doom while they remain powerlessly at home. Nonetheless, Murphy and Dailey create full-blooded and genuine performances. I was genuinely sorry to hear Brutus report Portia’s death during one of the battlefield scenes.

Howe uses one actor, Justin Lawrence, to act as a master of ceremonies of sorts and to fill seven minor roles: Flavius, Cinna the Conspirator, Cicero, Cinna the Poet, Artimedorus, Lepidus, and a member of the unwashed masses. The whole concept never quite clicked with me. The rest of the cast’s performances were very realistic, while Lawrence was situated outside the action looking in. His “disguises” were obvious and stagy while everyone else looked naturalistic. In appearance and attitude Lawrence is markedly different from the other men in the cast – the kind of guy who stands out in a crowd – which is a good thing for an actor to be but it doesn’t make for a good fit with this kind of Everyman role.

Joseph McGranaghan doubles as the grimy Soothsayer and clean-cut Octavius Caesar. Androgynous little Melanie O’Malley to play Brutus’ servant Lucius, here an amalgam of many servant/soldier characters in Shakespeare’s original, with touching innocence. And three “extras” – Jacob Brode, Jennifer Lynne, and Geoffrey Waltz – flesh out the world of the play with citizens, soldiers, and servants. Brode, Lynne, O’Malley, and Waltz make up the Bakerloo Apprentice Company, a group of young artists who live, work, and attend school in the Capital District. They are all attractive and talented and blended well into this ensemble. O’Malley and Waltz appeared as mechanicals in last season’s Bakerloo production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I was glad to see them back again.

It was Howe’s intention to have the six conspirators against Caesar be played by three men and three women, but fate intervened and Erin Hopkins, who was to have played Metellus Cimber, sprained her ankle badly the night before the opening and so Howe stepped into her role. It is a great credit to this company that, had I not been told there was a last minute catastrophe and substitution, I would never have known. Unlike the ancient Romans, we don’t build gender into our names, and I don’t think I would even have questioned a guy named Erin in this day and age. The play proceeded flawlessly, as if it had ever been thus. And the good news is that Hopkins will probably be healed and back in the show by the second week of its run.

If you have never heard of the Bakerloo Theatre Project, its time you did. Based in New York City, Bakerloo has been producing shows since 2000. Their summer Classics Project started as a brief retreat in the capital region, and has developed into a month-long residency for emerging theatre artists. They first came to Troy in 2004 with a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost on the Emma Willard campus. Their collaboration with RPI started last year with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Noel Coward’s Design for Living.

The best change this year has been the company’s move to the Academy Hall Theatre. While I enjoyed their 2005 productions, I HATED the cavernous, hot, and ugly performance space in West Hall. Academy Hall is just the right size and its cool white interior suits the classical themes of this year’s plays nicely. Howe and set designer Dana Liebowitz use both the stage and the floor for the action of the play, wrapping the audience three-quarters of the way around the floor level playing area. This brings the actors and the audience into very close proximity from time to time, which, given the energy and intensity of this production, is often very moving. Brutus’ scenes of psychological turmoil, for instance, are played on floor level, while the more painful assassination scene and the suicides are performed on the stage.

I see definite growth in Bakerloo over this past year. This production looked less homemade and much more professional, aided greatly by the addition of their three Design Fellows: Liebowitz, Salks, and lighting designer Michael O’Dell. They are coming closer to the goal in their mission statement of producing “…high-quality, low-cost, innovative theatre without pretense…” I encourage you to go and see Julius Caesar and Antigone (running August 4, 5 & 10-13). While a ticket to just one of the shows is an affordable $15, you can see both shows for just $20, which makes Bakerloo one of the best theatrical buys you are likely to get!

The Bakerloo Theatre Project‘s production of Julius Caesar will be performed July 28, 29, 30, August 3 & 6 at 8 p.m. and August 5 & 12 at 2 p.m. in the Academy Hall Theatre on the campus of RPI in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Children until 13 will be frightened or confused by the politics and blood, but teens will find the parallels to modern politics intriguing. Tickets are $15 per show or $20 for a season pass. Call the box office at 518-892-2241 or 212-252-2947 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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