The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins / Remorse from power. –Brutus, Act II, Julius Caesar
Because Julius Caesar is easily Shakespeare’s most political history play, it’s right that director Dexter Bullard has made the characters very, very public figures. Seldom leaving the stage, wearing tuxedos or evening gowns, the principals in this Next Theatre production carry on as if cavorting before a thousand cameras. Behind them a busy 15-person chorus, dressed in blue choir robes or work clothes, chant, enact bit parts, produce sound effects (banging on aluminum panels, for instance, to suggest the storm), explode into complex cheerleading routines (seamlessly moving from screaming “Caesar!” to howling “Brutus!” after the assassination), and erupt in homicidal rage as Antony stirs them to insurrection; in the second half they pound on staves to suggest clashing armies and freeze into ritualistic battle tableaux.
Robert G. Smith’s set emphasizes the publicity of the events: it looks like the setup for a photo shoot, restricting the chorus to wide steps upstage and the conspirators and their enemies to microphone-bearing banquet tables downstage; a ramp cuts through the middle from which Caesar usually presides. Speeches are breathlessly delivered through echoing loudspeakers; pinpoint lighting (also by Smith) shifts violently from public moments to private conspiratorial scenes; in the second half the principals are restricted to opposing daises, as if the battle of Philippi were a corporate feud in a Hilton conference room.
The spectacle certainly stirs, but the stylized movement seems slow and static. Modern dress notwithstanding, this version of the usually pell-mell tragedy resembles a No play intent on re-creating an event from ages long past. Indeed, so distancing is the ensemble’s constant bustle that it’s hard to imagine that what you see is happening as you see it.
Yet the performances, clean and often urgent, serve the poetry well. Rick Peeples makes a magisterial Caesar, his smug arrogance suitably insufferable. Unforcedly noble, Benjamin Werling’s complex Brutus is well aware of the yawning chasm between his ideals and the wrongs he commits to serve them. As lean and hungry Cassius, Don Tieri fairly seethes with this grasping man’s envy of authority, finally dissolving into splenetic fury when Brutus crosses him. Kirsten Sahs offers a softer, more seductive Antony than we’re used to; she delivers the Big Speech with a startling lack of irony or cunning, as if Antony’s natural, untrammeled sincerity accidentally turns him into a rabble-rouser. But in the second half Sahs’s news-anchor matter-of-factness blunts the edges of Antony’s conflicts; we never see past Antony’s professional veneer even in the intimate scenes, we never feel that the camera’s been switched off.
Fine as the individual work is, the crucial connections between the characters are weak or missing. There’s no subtext to explain why these sharply etched figures act as they do. The spectacle swallows up the psychology. And after all these people are driven by a wide range of feelings. Brutus, Cassius, and their crew–the self-deluding, self-appointed saviors of the country–are united only by their hatred of Caesar and after his murder dissolve in fratricidal wrangling; the benevolent despot they killed pursues his revenge as a very real ghost, dividing them by guilt and conquering through jealousy. Inevitably the fatal divorce of remorse from power dooms Brutus and Cassius as much as it did Caesar.
You see the psychological deficit of Next’s production most clearly in the watershed confrontation between Cassius and Brutus. In their self-destructive rivalry, as poignant as it is pathetic, we should suddenly grasp how their flaws have fused to wreck their cause. But as these lines are delivered by Tieri and Werling they don’t wound–their conflict plays like a tepid game of one-upmanship, so much frivolous self-indulgence before the all-important showdown. Likewise the electric exchange between Portia and Brutus–which offers the only glimpse into Brutus’s inner life–is so drawn out here, both by Laura Fisher’s languorous line readings and by Werling’s pauses, that it dwindles into lassitude. (It doesn’t help that the set design severely restricts all movement; though Next has extended the stage, this is among the most claustrophobic, physically fragmented Shakespeare productions I’ve seen.)
What remains impressive, despite the imbalance in this too-public Caesar, is the amazing, daunting range of Bullard’s all-feeling, all-emoting chorus. Their energy never flags. They build mass hysteria like a hurricane. But unfortunately their reactions are far more powerful than the events that supposedly provoke them.