Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Julius Caesar
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Georama, As You Like It and South Pacific

John Maltese and Benjamin Boucvalt
Photo by Dan Norman
The Great River Shakespeare Festival is a professional Equity theater company now in its thirteenth season in Winona, Minnesota. GRSF is increasingly being discovered by Twin City audiences for its top rate, highly accessible Shakespeare and other work, accessed by way of a beautiful drive along the Mississippi River for which the festival is named. All productions are staged in the 425-seat Vivian R. Fusillo Main Stage Theatre in the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Winona State University. This year's shows are As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and a new musical, Georama. The festival also offers open air concerts, guest lecturers, narrated set-changes between matinee and evening performances, and conversations with cast and crew members.

This brisk and muscular production of Julius Caesar, directed by James Edmonson, was a prescient choice to mount this season. GRSF selected it last fall as one of two Shakespeare plays to mount this summer aware that it would strike at a time of political awareness, with two national conventions taking place in the run up to our fall presidential elections. They could not have known the Machiavellian tone this political season would take in the ranks of both major parties, to say nothing of the intrigue unfolding in the United Kingdom as would-be leaders jockey for position in the wake of the Brexit vote. Any audience member with the scantest idea of current world and national affairs would be hard-pressed not to read today's news into Shakespeare's account of ambition and betrayal amid the malleable winds of public opinion. With the actors in mid-twentieth century dress, the play's resonance to contemporary events is made even more striking.

The play opens with the return of Julius Caesar, great general and member of the triumvirate ruling Rome, from his most recent military campaign. He is at his peak of achievement and popularity among the throngs of citizens gathered to welcome him, but members of the Roman Senate fear that he intends to seize all power for himself and destroy their democracy. Cassius (famously described by Caesar as having "a lean and hungry look") seems driven by envy of Caesar's rise, and in turn goad Brutus, who harbors genuine concerns for the health of the republic, chiding him that "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Caesar ignores the entreaty of a soothsayer to "beware the ides of March", while Cassius, Brutus, and a group of fellow senators plot to assassinate him. The first act leads up to the brutal deed, graphically depicted, and to Marc Antony, Caesar's second in command, being given permission by Brutus to speak of the greatness of the slain leader, though not against those who slayed him, at Caesar's funeral.

Act two begins with the funeral, with Brutus first speaking to convince the grieving public that Caesar, though great in his time, had become a menace to the future of Rome. After winning over the crowd, he is followed by Marc Antony, starting with the iconic "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." What follows is perhaps the most brilliantly crafted political oration in western drama, as Antony manages to win the crowd back in support of Caesar and against his enemies without ever directly saying anything against Brutus, Cassius, and their comrades. This speech exemplifies the way sharp rhetoric and emotional appeals can sway public opinion, a phenomena that remains alive and well in today's political arena.

The result is civil war, with Antony and Caesar's designated successor Octavius battling against Cassius, Brutus, and other upholders of the Republic. Shakespeare wrote scenes that describe battle strategy, but not of battle taking place. We do see the effect of victory and defeat on the war's leaders. History bears out the result, with Rome shifting from republic to empire, and Octavius becoming the emperor, Caesar Augustus.

Knowing the history, Julius Caesar cannot surprise with its outcome. What it does very well, though, is look into the hearts and minds of those who commit murderous acts in the name of the public good, and those who lead others to the death fighting for a cause they believe in—or, falling short of that, fighting to uphold their honor. Edmonson keeps things moving at a swift pace, at times allowing for some confusion as to who is who among the double-cast secondary characters, but always maintaining focus on the central characters, their motives, and their story.

John Maltese is a valiant Brutus who acts on principal, then struggles with the tragic results of his actions. Benjamin Boucvalt is equally strong as Cassius, cunningly manipulative in moving Brutus and the others to violently bring Caesar down. Zach Curtis is an understated Caesar, enjoying the public's adoration but unaware how it sets him up to be the object of attack by those whose power he threatens. As Mark Antony, Jason Rojas appears at first as a true believer, faithful to Caesar, but with little spine of his own. However, he draws both spine and fire from within to avenge Caesar's death, a transformation that Rojas makes convincing. His performance of the funeral oration, crouching low to be near eye level with the crowd hanging on his every word, is acting at its best.

JuCoby Johnson plays the secondary role of Cinna in act one, but in act two, as Octavius, makes a strong impression as a young man finding his strength and emerging as a leader. Unfortunately, the two women's roles in Julius Caesar offer little for two fine actresses—Tarah Flanagan as Brutus's wife Portia, and De'Onna Prince as Caesar's wife Calpurnia—to do. They each do strong work in parallel scenes in which they beg their husbands to avoid imminent calamity to no avail.

R. Eric Stone's set is simple but elegant, composed of truncated classical columns arranged in an arc at the rear of the stage, two large metal tables on wheels that can be moved to serve varied functions, including Caesar's funeral bier, and several small platforms and piers. Rebecca Bernstein's costume designs bear the sinister sense of smoke-filled boardrooms, while Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's lighting conveys the danger that lurks in shadows. Matt Tibbs's sound design brings forth the crowd's adoration of Caesar as well as the cries of battle, both from off stage.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare depicts the mayhem and unintended consequences that result when men take the law into their own hands in the name of principle. It is a stark and violent play, depicting stark and violent times, but with a message that no doubt had bearing in Shakespeare's day, as it does in our own. Great River Shakespeare Festival has done excellent work with this production at a time when its message might serve us well.

Season XIII of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 31, 2016, at the Performing Arts Center, Winona State University, Winona, MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $50.00. Discount season passes for all three Festival shows are available. For performance and other event schedules and tickets call 507-474-7900 or go to

Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: James Edmonson; Text/Vocal Coach: Erica Tobolski; Scenic Designer: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Designer: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Designer: Rebecca Bernstein; Sound Designer: Matthew Tibbs; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Fight Captain: Blake Henri; Text Coach Intern: Lauren Pennline; Assistant Costume Designer: Hayley Ryan; Production Stage Manager: Daniel Munson; Stage Manager: Violet Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Victoria Esquibell.

Cast: Caroline Amos (Lucius), Benjamin Boucvalt (Caius Cassius), Zach Curtis (Julius Caesar), Justin Erbe (Carpenter/Luminous/Messenger), Michael Fitzpatrick (Flavius/Cicero/Lepidus), Tarah Flanagan (Portia), Blake Henri (cobbler/Decius/Messala/Commoner), JuCoby Johnson (Cinna/Octavius), Peter Eli Johnson (Casca/Titanus/Commoner), Ted Kitterman (Soothsayer/Pindarus), John Maltese (Marcus Brutus), Mark Murphey (Murrellus/Ligarius), Emily Perkins (Commoner/Darius), Raelynn Peter (Commoner/Caesar's Servant), De'Onna Prince (Calpurnia), James Queen (Commoner/Trebonius), Jason Rojas (Marc Antony), Silas Sellnow (Metellus/Cinna the Poet).