The similarities between Theatre for a New Audience's previous production (Richard Nelson's The General From America) and their current offering at the Lucille Lortel are inescapable: Both are intended as edgy political dramas exploring the nature and roots of betrayal, and what might make one man betray a beloved comrade.
Yet, while The General From America faltered because of its near-devotion to political revisionism, William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar demonstrates how to do it big and how to do it right. Director Karin Coonrod has taken Shakespeare's every lead and presented the play in an elegantly staged production that emphasizes what a fascinating and taut political thriller the play can be at its best.
That's not to say that this production is perfect - there are some pacing problems caused by its wearing its mantle of Important Theatre too boldly at the beginning, and one major role is not effectively cast - but those are the most significant complaints to be found. This production achieves what most Shakespeare productions attempt but fail at: Making a centuries-old play seem as fresh and vital as if it were written today.
Coonrad and her designers (Douglas Stein for sets, Catherine Zuber for costumes, and David Weiner for lights) work almost entirely in black, white, and grays, playing with light, darkness, and shadow in a way that adroitly mirrors the underground political movements at the play's center, as Caesar (Earl Hindman) is faced with assassination from his senators who fear for the future of their empire under his command. Yet Coonrod's production never loses the script's focus on Brutus (Thomas M. Hammond), whose feelings about the plan, its aftermath, and his reasons for betraying his king form the backbone of the play. Hammond's Brutus is older and wiser, yet deeply in love with his country and willing to protect it at any cost.
Hindman's Caesar is an everyday man, whose choices about what to believe and whom to trust seem completely down-to-earth in his personality. Hammond's Brutus is commanding and charismatic, many of the qualities Caesar doesn't outwardly display. Their characterizations complement each other beautifully, their ultimate betrayal scene gaining weight and emotion from the grounded nature each presents.
The role of Cassius, who organizes the plot against Caesar, is the only piece that doesn't completely fit. Daniel Oreskes plays Cassius as very withdrawn, an observer rather than an instigator whose actions could threaten to rend a nation, and while that's certainly one way to portray him at the beginning, his Cassius never grows and never moves - does one behave the same when trapped in a collapsing room as when one is on the outside, pushing the walls in on another? Oreskes never makes it convincing.
Simeon Moore has a smaller role as another conspirator and makes similar choices that create a richer, more varied character who is much different at the end than the beginning. Graham Winton gives the production's best single performance as Mark Antony, making him dynamic, clever, and commanding every moment he's onstage.
But even when he's not, the production flies. Coonrod has paced this captivating Julius Caesar relentlessly (there is no intermission), using nearly every moment of her time available to great effect. Her storytelling, sharp and clear, makes a near-ideal match for Shakespeare's soaringly poetic and frequently harrowing words.
Theatre for a New Audience