Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Fault Dear Brutus: 'Julius Caesar' Sparkles in Brilliant Staging, but Key Casting Enigma Cuts Deep -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Julius Caesar
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru March 24

Friends, Romans, Countrymen:

I am neither a scholar of Shakespearean drama nor ancient Rome, so my central supposition about Julius Caesar may be highly suspect.

It may very well be prompted by my only prior viewing of the play having been on Broadway in 2005, with Denzel Washington as Marcus Brutus--by far a larger role than the titular character--as well as substantive film character actors William Sadler as Caesar and Eamonn Walker as Marc Antony, but my perception is that those three central characters should be roughly equivalent in standing, stature and moral rectitude.

I won't pretend I recall many details of that 2005 performance, but know that Washington imbued Brutus with his own powerful sense of dignity and decency, which made Brutus' questioning of his actions one of a "noble man" facing a crisis of conscience that one doesn't doubt exists.

In director Jonathan Munby's otherwise brilliant modern dress, contemporary political theater staging of Julius Caesar at Chicago Shakespeare, what seemed to me like a flaw in the casting and/or characterization of Brutus saps the Ides of March slaying and its repercussions--both personal and political--of its proper balance.

Performance photos by Liz Lauren
Though the Broadway version I saw was also done in modern dress, Munby's highly imaginative staging makes the Bard's 1599 play feel even more acutely contemporary.

Prior to the show's official 7:30 start, characters were already meandering around on-stage in something of an impromptu political rally, complete with 'Caesar For King' signs, rock music and even a hot dog vendor.

As the photo at right should suggest, Caesar is played like a confident American President (or at least candidate) by David Darlow, complete with a URL. Smart phones, security footage and assault rifles also figure into Munby's staging, which even features a flash mob breaking out.

If, like me, you often find traditional Shakespeare a bit too dodgy and stodgy for your tastes, this rendition modernizes Sir William to a rather user-friendly extent without altering the original language or narrative. Simply for the originality of the staging, this production of Julius Caesar is worth seeing, especially if you find discount tickets on HotTix or Goldstar. (Chicago Shakespeare also offers a $20 ticket deal for those under 35)

But if Caesar here can be perceived as a George W. Bush (in terms of his power and, among supporters, popularity), then in my purview Brutus should seem like Colin Powell. Instead, as best I can offer within similar context, he feels more John Ashcroft, and that may even be an overstatement.

I certainly am not suggesting that John Light is an unskilled actor; far from it as the Brit's long and impressive list of credits would indicate.

But in making his American stage debut, the diminutive Light makes Brutus seem--at least to me--like a shifty, strung-out Wall Streeter, rather than a bold, gallant friend, then foe, to Caesar and later Antony.

Thus, when the brooding Brutus is convinced to condone and partake in Caesar's assassination--sorry for the spoiler of a story that dates back to 44 B.C.--I never had the sense he was all that conflicted.

Brutus here also fails to seem the equal of Marc Antony, played with forceful charisma by Dion Johnstone. As it is their dichotomy that drives the post-intermission action (technically not Act 2), I'm not sure I got a fair reading on the morals and motivations Shakespeare was likely trying to examine.

Certainly, along with the sublime staging, it was completely enjoyable to hear all the famous lines recited live on stage, including "It's Greek to me," with which I concluded my previous post.

There is much to recommend about Julius Caesar--the first Shakespearean play I've seen at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; the rest were all Sondheim musicals plus Amadeus--but to me the characterization of the main character (and again, it's Brutus, not Caesar) just didn't feel right.

That's too bad, because with a more overtly valiant Brutus--à la Denzel Washington--this inventive take on Julius Caesar could really have reigned supreme.

But what do I know? For as Cassius says (and I referenced in my headline):

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves."

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