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Shakespeare & Co's 'Julius Caesar' a tight, compact and revealing revival

Nigel Gore and Mat Leonard in a scene from "Julius Caesar" at Shakespeare & Company
Nigel Gore and Mat Leonard in a scene from "Julius Caesar" at Shakespeare & Company
Kevin Sprague

'Julius Caesar' at Shakespeare & Company

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Et tu, Tina Packer?

James Udom's Antony stirs the rabble in "Julius Caesar"
Kevin Sprague

Has the frenzy for minimalized Shakespeare finally caught up with Lenox’s “Shakespeare & Company” for their current production of “Julius Caesar" which runs through August 30?

After all, the company is also doingits version of The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “The Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare--Abridged” through August 24 with a cast of three. And one of the members of the outstanding cast of “Julius Caesar” just happens to be Eric Tucker, who caused a sensation this past winter off-Broadway with his Bedlam Theatre Company’s exciting three-person version of “Hamlet.”

Now comes along Packer’s seven person take on the Bard’s classic study of political chicanery, crowd manipulation, pride and integrity. Is this just the noted Lenox company’s attempt to catch up with modern gimmickry. Far from it. Packer’s adaptation may have only seven actors, but no one is being shortchanged, neither Shakespeare nor the Shakespeare & Company audience. What one finds in this “Julius Caesar” is a compact, focused and frequently stirring production that fully captures the scope of Shakespeare’s work while offering astute insight into the larger than life personalities who figure so strongly in the story: from the thoughtful and careful Brutus to the impetuous Octavius Caesar to the subtly manipulative Marc Antony to the ambitious Caesar himself, whose military victories in the far reaches of the Empire makes him suspect to his fellow Senators. Packer’s version is both an action-packed military history of the circumstances leading to and immediately following Caesar’s unfortunate encounter with the Ides of March, as well as an emotion-drenched look into the minds and hearts of the play’s principals.

Packer’s direction assures that all the major plot points remain clear and understandable to the audience, even though the seven actors are performing multiple parts. Through slight changes to Kristina Tollefson’s clever costume designs, such as the discarding of a robe, the removal of a sash, the addition of a helmet or the raising of a hoodie, a switch in character is easily communicated. Packer has also adapted the original Shakespeare to add multiple name references by characters in conversation, so that there is never any doubt as to who is participating in a particular scene. Even in crowd scenes, as cast members cry and shout from within the audience, a sense of the multitudes is definitely felt.

As Packer herself points out in a director’s note, Shakespeare himself, when planning tours of his plays throughout England, supposedly sent out troupes of seven actors. Packer indicates that she wanted to see how this could have worked, and she succeeds here quite satisfactorily. She originated this production at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival and subsequently directed it at Prague Shakespeare, so she has indeed had time to clarify and streamline her version. At two hours plus a 15-minute intermission, this “Julius Caesar” zips by, thanks to the intensity of the performances and Packer’s attention to the more visceral elements of the plot.

There is by necessity a minimal amount of scenery, but set designer Ryan McGettigan has provided an array of statuary and a see-through curtain backdrop that accommodates the secrecy of the plotting and the off and on action of the warring armies. Matthew Miller’s lighting helps distinguish between locations and thus cue for the audience various scenic changes. Douglas Seldin is responsible for carefully and believably choreographing the various fight scenes that make up the second act, while credit must also to Victoria Carraro, who designed some of the spectral and balletic movement that adds so much to, in particular, the crowd scenes, most notably the assassination in the Senate as well as the arrival of the cast in sinister robes which herald the growing underground dissatisfaction with Caesar as he makes his way toward the republic’s capital for what many fear will be a coronation.

Nigel Gore commands particular attention whenever he is on stage as Caesar, creating a strong, irresistible personality who is impossible to ignore. He makes the general’s flaws readily apparent, a confidence that blinds him to the growing feelings of the populace and a hauteur that leads him to believe that he has the support of the Senate because of his military prowess. Another cofounder of Shakespeare & Company, Dennis Krausnick, will be taking over the role of Caesar between today, July 15, and August 2, while Gore takes a temporary leave from the company, but who will return for the final performances through August 30.

In many ways “Julius Caesar” can be seen as a tragedy about Brutus, a Senator who has been a long-time friend and supporter of Caesar, but is reluctantly recruited into the assassination plot by the impetuous Cassius. Eric Tucker is indeed outstanding as the tormented Brutus, who exercises caution and practices fairness ultimately to his detriment. Tucker allows the audience to feel Brutus’s doubts and hesitations, as he argues back and forth against the challenges posed by his friend Cassius, then helps us understand and even concur with his character’s ultimate decision. His masterful performance holds the production together, as we ever so reluctantly ourselves follow his character to his obvious and ultimate downfall as he strives to remain honorable to the very end.

James Udom kind of sneaks up on you as Antony, offering a carefully subdued performance until his character quite slyly persuades Brutus to allow him to say a few words at Caesar’s funeral. His subsequent oration builds slowly, almost unobtrusively, until his words subtly begin to convince the rabble of the great betrayal that occurred in the Senate and what a great loss Caesar’s assassination represents. Udom is marvelous with his quiet manipulation, and is later able to demonstrate Antony’s fierceness and determination when pursuing the fleeing assassins and trying to keep in check Caesar’s young and over-compensating heir, Octavius, played by Shakespeare & Company newcomer Mat Leonard.

Jason Asprey is another standout as the aggressively devious and unforgiving Cassius, playing the ringleading Senator with a stubborn determination that leaves no room for reason or negotiation. Asprey is indeed the yang to Tucker’s ying, as their arguments go the core of the issues depicted in the play of loyalty, honor, public responsibility and even for its time, political correctness. Packer’s direction seems to make it clear that Caesar’s refusal of the Emperor’s crown offered three times by Antony in the field was a deliberately staged act, either by Antony alone or a collusion between two members of the triumvirate that was ruling Rome at the time.

Kristin Wold portrays both of the women in the work, Calpurnia, Caesar’s dream-disturbed wife, and Portia, the cautious, questioning wife of Brutus, carefully distinguishing between both characters. She also easily segues into a number of male roles as well, including Brutus’s loyal servant Lucius, and one of the knife-wielding Senators, as well as some of the more vocal and fearless members of the rabble. Andrew Borthwick-Leslie also plays a variety of roles, moving easily from the essentially powerless and disregarded member of the triumvirate Lepidus to the plotter Casca.

Packer’s production also serves to highlight the political maneuvering of the period in a clear and concise manner, eliminating some of the detail that Shakespeare includes that would only muddy the essential underlying conflicts. It’s a wise move that contributes to the swift movement of the evening. The cast practices nearly impeccable enunciation so that Shakespeare’s language can be enjoyed and understood, allowing the puns and portents to be appreciated. Though Packer calls it “bare bones” Shakespeare, this production of “Julius Caesar” is as full an evening of theater that one could expect. This less is more approach can indeed lead to pertinent observations and new revelations that can only add to one’s respect and excitement regarding the Shakespeare canon.

For tickets and information, please call the theater’s Box Office at 413.637.3353 or visit the Shakespeare & Company website at www.shakespeare.org.

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