Arizona Repertory Theatre
'Julius Caesar': Toga party comes up a little short
UA's Shakespeare’s production earns a solid B+
Earning a B grade in college is perfectly acceptable and still above average. The University of Arizona production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is a solid B+.
It gets the job done well enough, telling Shakespeare’s version of the historical power struggle in ancient Rome – it just doesn’t blow your mind. It has pomp, some notable acting and certainly meets its primary goal as a teaching tool for students. It’s above average entertainment, though not an extraordinary production of this work.
Truth be told, Shakespeare’s sprawling “Julius Caesar” requires a lot of resources to even hit the boards. There are more than 35 characters, though many of those roles can be carried out by actors doing double- or even triple-duty. The UA’s Arizona Repertory Theatre company provides all the talent, costuming, set and sound design needed for this ambitious work.
Director Brent Gibbs takes a traditional approach to the Bard, faithful to the text and times. (Shakespeare is sometimes recast into more contemporary settings – UA once staged "Two Gentlemen from Verona” as a disco era piece, and Gibbs staged a modern "As You Like It" last year.) This fidelity has inherent problems since the audience today is different than it was 500 years ago. Now the language sounds archaic and our high school study of Roman history and politics is at best a faint memory.
Gibbs, aided by voice and text coach Dianne J. Winslow, allows his actors a slower, more even pacing to Shakespeare’s sometimes tongue-twisting Middle English. This makes things easier on both the actors and audience – the words are easier to say and much easier to understand – but it diminishes the sprung rhythms woven into the exquisite language. The focused, deliberate pace also reduces the sense of urgency in the action. If your country is about to be split apart by civil war, you might expect speech in the heat of that moment to be more passionate and hurried.
The story of Julius Caesar was well-known in Elizabethan England, following publication of Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” Ambitious Caesar is so successful that he himself believes he may be a god, destined to lead Rome to greater glory than the messy group-think of the Senate could ever achieve. A cadre led by Cassius and Brutus decide to thwart this rise to tyrannical power by assassinating Caesar on the floor of the Senate. Rather than easing tensions, this throws the government into a violent power struggle that ends in even more death.
Aaron Blanco plays Julius Caesar with the cocky attitude of a winning quarterback, chest expanded, shoulders thrust outward, arms relaxed and ready to get the job done. He makes Caesar’s imperious attitude seem natural, as if success is no surprise to him.
As Cassius, Joe Hubbard shined, offering subtle variations of tone and pacing in his speech, without sacrificing clarity. In contrast, James Conway as Brutus was more measured and even, never quite lost in the moment, giving his character an unnecessary distance from the violence. Robert Don Mower as Caesar’s avenger, Marc Antony, was also notable. He gave a well-modulated rendition of the famous “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” speech and had a simmering anger that felt genuinely dangerous in the final battle scenes.
Women’s roles in “Julius Caesar” are mostly ancillary – for Shakespeare, war is clearly men’s work. Among the various female roles, Kelsey Ann Johnson as Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, and Lauren Miller as Brutus’s wife, Portia, were highly supportive and sympathetic, foreshadowing the impending cataclysm for their respective spouses.
The set by Peter Beudert featured a raised level with steps, stretched all the way to the wings, bisecting and foreshortening the already cozy Marroney Theatre stage. This generated a lot of stair climbing to move characters forward and backward on the stage. The set also had two pools of water ingeniously set in the stage and covered as necessary. An area in the center was uncovered to create a sandy expanse for the battle scenes. Columns (oddly rectangular rather than round) collapsed in the chaos. The ominous appearance of Caesar’s ghost was brilliantly handled through the stage design.
In a nice touch, the civil war aspect was reinforced by costuming all the soldiers in red togas, making it impossible to determine who was on what side of the conflict.
The ART production of “Julius Caesar” does not disappoint, nor does it mesmerize. Overall, Shakespeare’s toga party comes off well. With only one or two productions of the Bard’s works mounted locally each year, this is a decent opportunity to savor the timeless talents of our greatest playwright.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review typified director Gibbs’ interpretation of Shakespeare as usually traditional. We’ve updated that paragraph.