Theater Review: We come to praise ‘Julius Caesar’ at Pa. Shakespeare Fest
All roads lead to Rome, it once was said.
In William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and to paraphrase another aphorism, the roads are paved with good intentions.
You know where that leads to.
A moral cul de sac.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” (its full title), through July 17, Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, leaves no stone unturned in illuminating the bumpy road of ambition, motivation and emotion among the brutal drama’s dynamic protagonists: Julius Caesar (Keith Hamilton Cobb), Cassius (Greg Wood), Marcus Brutus (Henry Woronicz), Marc Antony (Spencer Plachy) and Casca (Christopher Patrick Mullen).
PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy directs the cast like a chess master calculating his moves on the white-board stage design by Steven TenEyck, backdropped by six towering columns. TenEyck suffuses the three-quarter black box theater with monochromatic lighting.
Don Tindall is sound designer for a contemporary mix of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), rave rhythms and casino slot-machine tones. Marla Jurglanis is costume designer for male militaristic jackets and coats and female Goddess-like gowns. J. Alex Cordaro is fight director for the prodigious swordplay. Maggie Davis is production stage manager.
“Julius Caesar” the play is a psychological cypher. Personal responsibility or the greater good?
Not so with the title character who, in Mulcahy’s keen and meticulous direction, is Christ-like and without blemish. Keith Hamilton Cobb, an imposing figure, strides the stage like a colossus (“This man has become a God,” Cassius marvels-warns) and yet he’s likable, humble and the least wrath-filled God this side of the universe.
Each of the lead actors has his day in the soliloquy spotlight. Thanks to Mulcahy’s precision, each fires off lines with force, understanding and meaning. Mulcahy is careful to assuage relationships between the leads, especially Cassius and Brutus. You sense the characters are well aware their roads are not less traveled and lead straight to hell.
Greg Wood assays an in-your-face Cassius, at once wheedling and powerful in a tightly-wound, intense, eye-focused, full-battle mode performance.
Henry Woronicz presents a thoughtful, steadfast and patrician Brutus in a sympathetic manner unlike the reputation that preceded him.
Spencer Plachy is a dashing Marc Antony, portraying a lean, forthright, yet intelligently duplicitous leader.
Christopher Patrick Mullen creates a feverish, rueful and cantankerous Casca, who would stoop to conquer.
Other standouts in the some 19-member cast include Rosalyn Coleman (Calpurnia), commanding the stage as Caesar’s wife; Grace Gonglewski (Portia), vulnerable as Brutus’s wife; Jacob Dresch (Decius Brutus), and Steven Dennis (Cicero).
Shakespeare is noted for coining or putting into popular use in the English language an estimated 1,700 words and-or phrases. This is no more so true than for “Julius Caesar,” including: “Beware the Ides of March.”; “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”); “The most unkindest cut of all.”; “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”; “Has it come to this?”; “Give up the ghost.”; “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.,” and “It was Greek to me.”
An historic footnote: “Julius Caesar,” said to be first performed in 1599, has had many iterations, including, ironically and perhaps foreshadowing one of the great tragedies in United States’ history, when Junius, Jr., Edwin and John Wilkes Booth appeared in “Julius Caesar,” Nov. 25, 1864, Winter Garden Theater, New York City, in a benefit to commission a Shakespeare statue in Central Park (it’s still there).
John Wilkes Booth, who played Marc Antony, lost the part he wanted, that of Brutus, to his brother, Edwin. John Wilkes Booth vowed he would someday make a name for himself. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln April 14, 1865, in Ford Theatre, Washington, D.C., shouting ”Sic semper tyrannis!,” the line Edwin Booth delivered as Brutus in that 1864 production of “Julius Caesar.”
Life imitates art, as Oscar Wilde posited in 1889.
“Julius Caesar” was said to reflect the ending of the Elizabethan Age and, with the elderly Queen Elizabeth not having or naming a successor, fears of a civil war happening in England similar to that in Rome as depicted in the play.
In the midst of this most turbulent U.S. presidential election year and as England’s referendum went the way of all “Brexit” as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the PSF production of “Julius Caesar” could not be more timely.
It’s not that we “got to revolution,” as the Jefferson Airplane once chortled in “Volunteers’ (1970), but what happens after that counts.
pashakespeare.org, 610-282-WILL (9455), ext. 1