Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Civil strife in Heaven"
Nothing is more confusing than genius. William Shakespeare was a genius who was able to write equally well in the genres of comedy, tragedy, history and poetry. He wrote more very quotable lines than any other playwright in history. He left indelible images that sing in the brain whether or not we realize the source. For many people who are unfamiliar with his work there is still an unrealized affinity for what he created.
No play in his lexicon proves this better than Julius Caesar. Every time you think you’ve never heard "this" before along comes a Willy zinger that makes you sit up and take notice. In the current production, a low-budget road-show with a vibrant young cast of only six players, there are no pauses to let those overly familiar lines lull an audience into a comfort zone. Director Jonathan Croy keeps the play moving along, tightening the suspense and overwhelming the senses with his rapid costume and hair-style changes so reminiscent of farce theater, and dragging his audience along with his players until it seems that Shakespeare is only for the young and we are restored to youth.
"Ambition should be made of sterner stuff," Marc Antony says in his funeral oration over Caesar’s body. Andy Talen as Marc tosses that line to his listeners and waits for them to throw it back and without realizing it, the audience at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre nods in agreement. Talen’s own youth makes his friendship and admiration for his friend so much brighter than it normally seems to be when an older actor takes the role. He touches different parts of our hearts in his moving rendition of these speeches. "This was the most unkindest cut of all," he rants as he shows us Brutus’ point of entry with a knife in Caesar’s destroyed cloak. Marc Antony is the star of his own Shakespeare play, but in Julius Caesar he finds his greatness, a point easily made by Talen even as his character betrays another friend later in the second act.
"Beware the Ides of March," a voice calls out to Scott Renzoni’s Caesar, a warning he does not heed, not really. His wife, Calpurnia, tries to make him listen to reason, warning him that "wisdom is consumed by confidence." Renzoni has a gentle transition from adoration of this woman to smarminess as he ignores her fears and premonitions. Renzoni plays the pompous politician well and takes us through his character’s untimely death with movement, gesture and expression that genuinely bring us into the action. His last words in Act One - "et tu, Brute" are not chilling as much as they are definitive. He plays a man who knows what is happening and also understands why.
Ryan Winkles plays the unpopular role of Cassius, the plotter. His youthful good looks make it clear that ambition knows no sweeter home than in his perfectly coiffed head. Sean Kazarian is his brother, his friend, his partner in crime, Brutus. "Cowards die many times before their deaths," Shakespeare wrote for Caesar to say and this certainly describes the two men portrayed here. Kazarian is a trembling, unsure Brutus who makes the most of his funeral oration, briefer than Marc Antony’s and more deliberately pointed toward personal sacrifice of a tyrant to the good of the people. This political ploy is still apparent today in our own political arena.
"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous,’ Caesar proclaims early of Winkles character. It is a proclamation that Winkles carries to its all too necessary conclusion as he destroys Cassius before our eyes. Shakespeare’s brilliance as a story-teller is best seen in this role and in Winkles definitive playing.
The other two players in this young company are Katharine Abbruzzese and Dani Cervone who mix wives, soldiers, Senators, servants and Romans into their performances with a stunning alacrity.
The style of this production is that of a Shakespearean "second" company sent out to the provinces with functionally brilliant costumes by Govane Lohbauer, a simple set by Christian Schmitt and effective lighting by Stephen Ball (not Shakespearean, but what the heck). The fights, choreographed by Winkles, work well and the of sound steel on steel is still heart-wrenching (don’t sit in the front row if you can help it).
Croy has pulled together an enjoyable two hour show from the massive historical drama, reducing the play its essence and leaving the brilliance of its philosophical utterings to play out in our hearts and minds. These youth oriented productions are among my favorite things at Shakespeare and Company. I advise you not to miss it.
Andy Talen as Marc Antony, almost in imitation of his friend Caesar; photo: Enrico Spada
Scott Renzoni as Julius Caesar, a prototype for Antony; photo: Enrico Spada
Ryan Winkles and Sean Kazarian as Cassius and Brutus; photo: Enrico Spada
Julius Caesar plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA through June 13. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-637-3353.