Theater Review - Georgia Shakespeare returns to scene of the crime with Julius Caesar

Company delivers a muted message in its bloody staging of Shakespeare's political melodrama

When the Roman conspirators bathe their hands in the blood of Julius Caesar’s title character, the scheming instigator Cassius wonders how history will judge them. “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?” reflects Cassius, played by Joe Knezevich in Georgia Shakespeare’s new production. Cassius, however, thinks that’s a good thing.

He perceives himself, Brutus, and their cohorts as “the men that gave their country liberty,” and their bloodbath as a timeless image equivalent to American paintings of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence.

Shakespeare fully intended his audiences to recognize the irony of Cassius’ meta-moment, but might not have expected that his lofty dramatization would be staged down the centuries, often with diverse interpretations. Shakespeare may have written Julius Caesar in 1599 partly to express concerns over a possible civil war in the event of Queen Elizabeth’s death. In 1937, Orson Welles commented on Mussolini’s regime with his famed “Italian fascist” interpretation. In 2001, Georgia Shakespeare took inspiration from the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey Long for a stunningly creative production that featured Mardi Gras parades and racially charged lynchings.

Reminiscent of Welles, artistic director Richard Garner’s new production evokes the political turmoil of the early 20th century. Caesar (Allen O’Reilly) wears a military uniform reminiscent of Il Duce or General George S. Patton. Overall, this Julius Caesar avoids elaborate concepts or anachronistic metaphors and emphasizes the play’s politically charged melodrama. Where most Georgia Shakespeare productions prove rich with ideas about its chosen plays’ dramas and designs, the company doesn’t seem to have much to say about Julius Caesar this go-round.

Famously, Marcus Brutus (Neal A. Ghant), not Julius Caesar, is the play’s tragic protagonist. O’Reilly plays Caesar as a leader full of entitlement, but not a larger-than-life historical force. You can see how the conspirators would think they could take this Caesar down. Brutus, deliberating over the bloody deed like Hamlet or Macbeth, worries that Caesar could seize tyrannical powers and destroy the Roman republic: He’s more concerned about what Caesar could do than what he has done.

Ghant’s stage presence makes both the contemplative scenes and the fiery oratory compelling, even though some of his two-actor scenes with Cassius or Brutus’ wife Portia (the affecting Susannah Millonzi) feel overly static. The play’s most touching relationship takes place between Brutus and his servant Lucius, played by Mason Cary, a young boy with remarkably articulate diction.

David Quay plays a particularly youthful, almost collegiate-seeming Marc Antony, but he succeeds at making the famed funeral oration a master class in crowd manipulation. Marc Antony might be a “good” demagogue, but he’s clearly still a demagogue. Nevertheless, the 12-actor ensemble occasionally falls short of conveying the masses of Roman rabble or standing armies, causing the action to seem sparse to a fault.

At times, Georgia Shakespeare’s production seems smaller than Shakespeare’s intent. In one of the play’s most horrific moments, a vengeful mob kills a poet named Cinna for the crime of sharing the name of a conspirator. Garner’s production implies that they kill the actual assassin (a bespectacled Eugene H. Russell IV), and makes Cinna’s claims of innocence a sign of cowardice, not a protest at indiscriminate murder.

As another conspirator, Casca, Allan Edwards seems intent on filling the void created by the relatively small cast. Milking virtually every syllable, Edwards delivers an embarrassingly florid, oversized performance that contrasts drastically with the company’s more naturalistic style. People who think they don’t like Shakespeare probably imagine acting exactly like this.

The best feature of Kat Conley’s set is an Atlas-style statue that supports the central staircase and appears on the verge of being crushed by the affairs of state. The production seems particularly energized by the play’s spooky elements, including ghostly visions, apocalyptic thunderstorms, and vivid rhetoric about supernatural portents. Georgia Shakespeare offers a Julius Caesar that ultimately feels less cued toward history or politics than Halloween.

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