If you are considering seeing a large, dramatic Shakespearean play where nearly everyone perishes, then you MUST run with the mobs to the Hanna Theatre to see the brilliance and the bloodshed of Great Lakes Theater’s production of Julius Caesar.
Running now through November 3, 2019 at the Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square, this “epic political tragedy” is superbly well-acted, and seamlessly directed so that all levels of Shakespeare fans can follow and appreciate the mastery on the stage.
Addressing issues of loyalty, power, and betrayal, this 2 hour and 10 minute thrill ride boasts a non-traditional cast. The show’s Playbill Notes state that director Sara Bruner “decided to cast women in the roles of Caesar and Cassius in order to examine what happens when women gain access to power in a male-dominated world.”
Caesar (Carole Healey) returns to Rome glorious from war and drunk on power. A conniving Cassius (Laura Welsh Berg) approaches Caesar’s friend Brutus (Lynn Robert Berg) with words of jealousy over Caesar’s reign, and asks him to be part of a plot to overthrow the “tyrant.” They banter about how each of them is just as worthy to wear the crown as Caesar, but Brutus is reluctant to be part of any plot.
With the arrival of a mighty storm and the cryptic words of a super-creepy Soothsayer (Jodi Dominick), Brutus is eventually worn down by Cassius’ words. He then moves full force into conspiring to remove Caesar and his followers, including the faithful Mark Antony (Nick Steen), from power. When Caesar is struck down, Mark Antony is left alive to “help” the new regime. But Antony has a secret plan of his own, and he brings his own torment down on the new Roman leaders with the help of Octavius (Julian Remulla) and Ledipus (Aled Davies). In the process, friends are lost, spouses die, and the countryside is ravaged.
Healey’s Caesar is one of pomp and power, but we also see her behind the scenes as she struggles physically. It is an interesting character in that she is a strong general and triumphant ruler, but behind closed doors she is partially deaf and suffers from seizures. Healey shows the humanity of Caesar, but also the ego. The most powerful scene, though, is her final utterance in death, “Et tu, Brute?” The sheer shock in her visage is a surprise that ripples through the entire theater.
Although the play is titled “Julius Caesar,” the story’s protagonist is more Brutus. Lynn Robert Berg’s tormented Brutus is wonderfully torn both within and without about his friendship for Caesar and about the good of his country. His inner turmoil is engaging. His character challenges the audience fiercely and sincerely to consider what one should be willing to do in order to serve a higher purpose. He becomes like a mad dog with a bone for the “good” of Rome. Why did Caesar have to die? “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” says Brutus.
Nick Steen’s Mark Antony is steadfast and devoted to Caesar. Antony begins the play as a strong partner to Caesar, is spared death (but is humiliated) by Brutus, and rises up again to avenge Caesar’s death. As he riles up the people at Caesar’s memorial service, his words are truly chilling: “Mischief thou art afoot, take thou what course thou wilt.” Steen’s portrayal is one of courage and inspiration.
The powerhouse of the play is Laura Welsh Berg as Cassius, as her every step and syllable are filled with intent and plotting. There is a gentle yet wicked power in her performance that carries an energy equal to the play’s big storm. Her interactions with each character are purposeful and layered with cunning. Cassius is the ultimate Roman mean girl looking to take down her enemies with manipulation, backstabbing, conniving, and politics. There is no greater embodiment of hatred and jealousy. Cassius hates Caesar, and she sees Brutus as a tool to take Caesar down… down to the death. Laura Welsh Berg is not a Cassius to be trifled with.
The world of the play is classic highlighted by contemporary. Scenic Designer Russell Metheny places the action in wood and metal with scaffolds and modern shapes. To contrast, Costume Designer Leah Piehl chooses toga-like drapings and military breastplates adorned with bits of modern material to bring an of-the-period feel with a contemporary update (and this reviewer always loves boots!). Lighting Designer Rick Martin keeps things shadowy, while Composer & Sound Designer Matthew Webb’s eerie interludes keep the show rife with anticipation. The storm at the beginning of the show needs a little bit of work, as some actors are periodically not in sync with each other or with the effects around them. However, the general feel of the torrent is effective, and the production effects as a whole are well-done. There is plenty of fog, thunder, lightning, wind, and blood for the entire performance.
Overall Sara Bruner’s Julius Caesar is intriguing and enthralling, and is worthy of following – no overthrow needed!
Great Lakes Theater presents Julius Caesar on the Hanna Theatre stage now through November 3, 2019. Tickets are available at www.greatlakestheater.org, 216-241-6000.