You can’t win ‘em all.
California Shakespeare Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” doesn’t quite make the grade they’ve led us to expect from their work. A general air of awkwardness pervades the action, rather like those awful “mixers” where everyone is trying very hard to behave as if they’re really interested in one another, when what they actually want to do is go home.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t some good performances. If the overall production had lived up to the standards set by the stage design, costuming, sound and lighting effects, this would be a hands-down winner. John Coyne’s background is stunning. About a third of the huge gray space is dominated by a profile of the flower-crowned Caesar. It sets the mood for the significance and horror of the unfolding tragedy.
Equally appropriate and creative are Emmy Award winner Katherine Roth’s costumes which reach for a sense of timelessness through a somber-toned blend of modern suits and toga-like draperies. Michael Chybowski, 1999 Obie Award winner for sustained excellence, has designed lighting that is flawless.
What is largely missing in this production, and most strikingly so in the crowd scenes, is a sense of ensemble. It is almost as if each actor is out there working it out for himself. (The brief appearances of the two actresses are so rudimentary that it seems perfectly accurate to refer to the cast members as “him.”) There are some fine individual performances, but that’s the problem: they’re individual. This is a play about the interplay between individuals and the world—Caesar’s assassination is an act of political policy, based on the belief that his future career would be destructive to Rome. At that time and for this play, Rome was the world.
Cal Shakes (as the company dubs itself) has divided this production into two acts: the first centered upon the conspiracy and assassination of Julius Caesar; the second, upon the subsequent chaos.
Caesar (L. Peter Callender) is drawn as a smooth-talking politician, a superb manipulator of crowds, always playing to the watchful eyes he can expect wherever he appears in public.
Brutus, perhaps the most interesting of all the characters, is well played by T. Edward Webster. His ambivalence toward the assassination and complex feelings for Caesar are acted straightforwardly, an interpretation which provides important balance to the production.
Cassius, the initiator of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, also deserves to be noted. He is loathsome, an agitator and manipulator whose motivation for the assassination is more personal than political: he bears old grudges that he masks with loftier motives. In this production, the actor, James Carpenter, presents him as lacking redeeming characteristics.
All in all, this production is a curious mixture: Genius playwright, terrific staging, erratic acting.