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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Muscular Julius Caesar
Impresses at Shakespeare Theatre

Julius Caesar
Robert Cuccioli
A muscular, sharply focused, world class Julius Caesar displays the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in rare form. Almost unfailingly, the text is delivered naturalistically and clearly without sing-song speech or artificial declamation. The result is that the overly familiar text, with its oft quoted passages, braces us with startling freshness and immediacy.

Harry Feiner’s unit set is a model of bold clarity and classical beauty. Its essential elements are seven stage-high, wide, marble-like monuments each bearing inscriptions with Latin style lettering. The stage floor also appears marble with inlaid designs in maroon and yellow, with three descending steps upstage. As we enter the theatre, three banners (maroon on white with yellow piping) hang in front of the center rear monuments, respectively bearing horizontally the names of each member of the First Triumvirate: Crassus, Caesar and Pompey. At the start, the rabble of citizens tear down the banners, setting up their upbraiding by the doomed Flavius and Marullus which opens the play.

As the play progresses, some of the monuments turn and, aided by the deft lighting of Matthew J. Williams, delineate different locations. After intermission, two smaller monuments jaggedly cut-off horizontally are added to suggest the destruction of war. Earlier on, after the assassination of Caesar, one of the large columns splits horizontally and moves front and center stage to provide a podium for Brutus and Mark Anthony to deliver their addresses to the masses. Towering over and near to the audience, with actors scattered through the aisles and balcony, the design and direction serve to make the audience part of the “rabble of citizens” subject to the imposing trappings of a powerful empire. It is a perfect setting for the brilliant speeches which Shakespeare provides.

As cogently directed by Brian Crowe, the clear center of the play is Robert Cuccioli’s multi-dimensional Brutus. In fact, several other excellent performances are hugely enhanced by what he brings to his Brutus. Roxanna Hope in one short scene has us truly thinking about Portia. Does her dissatisfaction with Brutus stem from his neglectfulness as he struggles with his conscience. or is she a daughter of privilege matured into a nagging wife who wants to be influential? Hope’s performance, assisted by the disturbed, ambiguous response of Cuccioli, raises both possibilities.

Richard Topol’s Cassius, of the “lean and hungry look” by his expressions and gestures, shows us that he is always calculating, but never plays overtly villainous. When Cassius comes to the camp of Brutus’ army, he is full of anger and invective at Brutus’ having executed one of his followers for taking bribes. In the confrontation which follows, Cuccioli goes through a range of emotions, at first powerfully excoriating the shallow but calculating Cassius, and finally offering rapprochement. Equally convincingly, Topol, overwhelmed by Brutus’ steel and reason, shrivels up before our eyes, revealing how truly weak the seemingly bold conspirator really is. This compellingly performed scene, also makes us conclude that it is likely that the principal reason that Brutus joined the conspirators was principle, and not Cassius’ flattery.

Furthermore, the Forum speeches of Brutus and Mark Anthony after the assassination of Caesar are delivered in contrasting styles which illuminate their respective impact. Cuccioli’s Brutus, not given to hyperbola and convinced of his justification for his actions, orates in a reasonable but uninspiring style perfectly in synch with the Bard’s writing. Gregory Derelian’s Mark Anthony is no great orator. In an interesting and valid interpretation, his Anthony is a pretty charmer whose sarcasm in following Brutus’ injunction not to attack the conspirators wins the crowd only when he invokes Caesar’s will, which makes the citizenry heirs to much of his property and fortune. How apt, but unusual, it is that here Anthony is not, does not have to be, a better orator than Brutus.

William Metzo is a strong and confident Julius Caesar. His powerful, clear line readings are crowd pleasing. However, in the early going, Metzo is a little too deliberate in his speech. Leon Addison Brown is a fine, sniveling Casca, but his line readings could use a little work as they sometimes border on the sing song.

For the most part, the excellent, modernly clean of line costumes by C. David Russell contribute to the clean classic look. Until the dogs of war are slipped, most of the nobles are clothed in white robes with purple sashes and black pants; shirts, vests, jackets, ties and pants are almost all in one of these three colors. Cassius in all in black, Brutus’ suit is grey and Caesar’s robe has yellow piping. The “rabble” are mostly garbed in brown and black, and wear berets and caps, and masks. It all works fine except for a few moments when the conspirators shorn of their robes appear to be dressed for a fancy lawn party.

Even those who think that they know Julius Caesar all too well, will find fresh nuances and much to think about in this excellent production.

Julius Caesar continues performances through November 13, 2005 (Eves: Tues. 7:30 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; Mats. Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m. – No public perfs – 11/1,2,8,9) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online www.shakespearenj.org/

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Brian B. Crowe
Cast
Julius Caesar……………………...William Metzo
Calpurnia, His Wife…….........Jessica Ires Morris
Brutus…………………………Robert Cucclioli
Portia, His Wife…………………….Roxanna Hope
Lucius, His Servant; Racer…………Michael Littig
Cassius…………………………….Richard Topol
Casca; Volumnius………..Leon Addison Brown
Trebonius; Marullus; Messala…………...John Pieza
Decius Brutus………………....Raphael Peacock
Metellus; Racer; Clitus………………..Nathan Kaufman
Cinna……………………………..Tristan Colton
Mark Anthony………………..Gregory Derelian
Octavius Caesar; Carpenter…………Derek Wilson
Lepidus; Cicero; Cinna, The Poet…..Geddeth Smith
Popillius; Cobbler; Dardanius..……….Brian Schilb
Caesar’s Servant……………………Monal Pathak
Octavius’ Servant, Soothsayer……….Patrick Toon
Flavius, Titinius…..……..Jonathan Brathwaite
Artemidorus, Pindarus………….David Arsenault
(Roman Soldiers And Plebians played by ………members Of The Company)


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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