Review “Julius Caesar”

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Couryard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through March 24
Tickets: $58-$78
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Julius Caesar” never has been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s latest production, from British director Jonathan Munby, does nothing to change that.

My basic problem with the work is simple. Although the plot is straightforward and easy to follow, the dialogue is almost all rhetoric. In long speeches, full of forms and figures that would have been familiar to Elizabethans, one character tries to convince another — or group of others — that his position is the correct one. This can be quite effective, as when Marcus Brutus first calms the crowd at Caesar’s funeral by justifying the assassination as the way to save the republic, and then Marc Antony incites them against the conspirators with his eulogy sarcastically extolling Brutus as “an honorable man.” But the steady diet of such formal arguments makes it harder for a director and actors to bring the play and the characters to life.

Like so many before him, Munby opts to transpose “Julius Caesar” to a contemporary setting. Certainly, the central question — Should potential threats to the state (especially a republic or democracy) be killed? — has continuing relevance, but fast-forwarding the action 400-or-so years to the U.S. also creates certain incongruities. For one thing, all the discussion of omens and portents comes across as odd. For another, our willingness to accept knives as the weapon of choice for murder and suicide may be stretched thin in this age of advanced weaponry.

To his credit, Munby stages the battles — between the forces of the exiled Brutus and Cassius and those of Antony and Octavius, who take over Rome — with plenty of exploding bombs, machine-gun fire, soldiers rappelling down ropes and other trappings of modern warfare. The murder of Caesar, with the killers steeping themselves in their victim’s blood, also is powerful, knives notwithstanding. In fact, the visuals — enhanced by Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ sound design — are the evening’s main strength, despite a misguided pre-show attempt at Americanization with a hot-dog cart, button seller, flash mob, etc. Fortunately, this pop-culture foray quickly gives way to something that could take place in many a country: banners unfurling on Alexander Dodge’s set featuring an imposing marble-clad staircase reminiscent of Third Reich architecture, or the Lincoln Memorial, or … our own Museum of Contemporary Art.

Munby also casts and directs some of the characters in an interesting way. David Darlow’s world-weariness and frailty as Caesar belie his recent victory over Pompey, so when we hear he’s thrice rejected the crown Antony offers him, we don’t automatically assume it’s a public relations ploy to get more crowd approval or that he necessarily wants to be king. He remains enigmatic until the end, and that alters our view of the conspirators and their motives. Dion Johnstone’s Antony, in boxer’s gear for the opening games (costumes by Ilona Somogyi), exudes the energy Caesar lacks; he also repeatedly rises to the occasion, and his noble forthrightness becomes a telling foil to the repellent pragmatism of Samuel Taylor’s wiry blond youth, Octavius.

One of the most unusual interpretations is the scene between Brutus and Portia. As played by Brenda Barrie, she’s the most pissed off Portia I’ve ever seen, and the encounter gives real meaning to the phrase “battle of the sexes.“ Two of the best performances come from Larry Yando as the marvelously snide and funny Casca – he makes such a mark we’re acutely conscious that we never find out what happens to him — and Alex Weisman as Brutus’ aide, Lucius, who’s not a very good servant but is great at upstaging his master.

That’s because John Light’s Brutus is lackluster. Though the play itself is partly to blame, we never get real sense of what distinguishes him from the rest of the conspirators or why Caesar loved and trusted him so. His inner conflict about assassinating his leader barely registers, and the same is true of his grief after he learns of Portia’s suicide. The fact that we have little empathy for him only exacerbates our perception of what a poor judge of character and strategist he his. He keeps making bad decisions, starting with letting Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral, of course.

As portrayed by Jason Kolotouros, Caius Cassius doesn’t exactly have the lean and hungry look Caesar describes, and he isn’t as sinister as he could be in his manipulations of Brutus. The big battlefield blowup between them briefly generates some heat but ends, like so much else, with Brutus winning the point but losing the day.