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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Julius Caesar’

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Brutus and gang don’t kill this “Julius Caesar.” Weak direction does.

Let’s start with the screeching. In early scenes of this political/historical thriller — a riveting narrative in which a group of Caesar’s allies turn on him because they’re afraid of him toppling the Roman Republic and becoming king — we watch tense negotiations between Cassius (Gabriela Lawson) and Brutus (Jay Parks). Will Brutus agree to join Cassius in the plot against Caesar?

Cassius was a man, of course. The whole idea of playing the character as a woman? I’m fine with that. I think it adds another level of complexity. But from the beginning in this production, Lawson affects a screechy, grandiose acting style. Even in her delicate, intrigue-laden interactions with Brutus, she bellows at him as if he’s lost 80% of his hearing. The problem isn’t just the volume. It’s the stagey, overwrought line readings that director Erica Riggs has tolerated — or drawn out — from some of her leading actors.

Other major offenders: Brooke Aiello, whose turn as Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, could be toned down by half. And Mohammad Shehata, as the feisty Mark Antony, screams through his anger at the end of the first act in a moment that very nearly reaches clownish status.

The major players who best manage to resist the urge to overact are Parks, who brings to his Brutus a conflicted sense of introspection, and in a more secondary role, Bridget Martin as Portia, the astute wife of Brutus.

Riggs’ creative concept for the show is not well-defined. She sets the play in early 1960s Rome, a charged political time. (It also fits in better with Cassius being a woman.) How do I know all this? Not from the director’s note in the program, but from an interview I did to advance the show. The only signal to a casual theatergoer wandering into this production that it is not set in Caesar’s time would be Johnnyangel Pineda’s odd mishmash of costumes. (Apart from some ’60s track shorts, a Jackie Kennedy-style pillbox hat and some vaguely looking vintage suits, I didn’t really catch a definitive vibe from that decade.)

Then, even if you do understand the time period, the acting style doesn’t fit with that. To me, a 1960s “Julius Caesar” would seem to need a modern tempo and realistic sensibility.

The pacing of the show is problematic. Let’s get basic here: “Julius Caesar” has a lot of talking in the early acts. That’s what potential assassins do: They plot together. But when we finally get to the “action,” especially the famous murder scene, Riggs whips through it as if she’s in a race. (She also sets it as far as she possibly can from the audience, at the top of the multi-level set, which seems like an odd place for an event that I thought took place on the floor of the Roman Senate.) At the opening weekend performance I saw, the famed line “Et tu, Brute” got stamped on in the rush to get through the scene. There is no dramatic¬†space for this cold act to sink in, no urgency as it unfolds.

Some bright spots: Aaron McGee’s fight choreography adds pep to the final battle scenes. And Richard Adamson is in many ways a compelling Caesar, both physically and in bearing.

The perplexing thing about much of the rest of the acting is that I’ve seen all these actors deliver much more nuanced Woodward performances in the past. And there are times when Lawson, Aiello and Shehata tone it down enough to impress. (One of these moments comes when Shehata’s Antony discovers Caesar’s body — it’s as if he slows down the play by sheer willpower, and it’s one of the few times in the play that I truly felt an emotional connection with the material.) All three obviously are comfortable with the text.

But somehow this production just doesn’t come together. The talent is there, but the concept and direction of “Julius Caesar” are a disappointment.

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