One of the challenges in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is that it's hard to top the build to the title character's murder midway through the play. In the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's sleek new production, director Patrick Mulcahy expertly crafts the taut machinations leading to the Roman senate’s inevitable assassination of the would-be emperor.
Keith Hamilton Cobb makes an appropriately enigmatic conqueror. Tall and dignified, with President Obama-style hair tinged with gray, he doesn't seem "a man of such a feeble temper" as Cassius (Greg Wood, compelling as always) describes, and has a majestic charm that's easy to like. Of course, wily Cassius's assessment may be biased by his own agenda, as Caesar realizes: "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look," he confides to Marc Antony (Spencer Plachy). "He thinks too much. Such men cannot be trusted." How right he is.
Cassius persuades Brutus (a solid Henry Woronicz) to join the conspirators, and the plot to "carve him as a dish fit for the gods" commences, despite the Soothsayer's famous Ides of March warning.
Marla Jurglanis's handsome modern costumes of black and gray, creatively augmented with military slashes and capes, join Steve TenEyck's scenic and lighting design in blending past, present, and future. The tall set on the intimate, audience-on-three-sides Schubert Stage suggests Rome's majesty but also modern Washington D.C.'s cool white marble. Banners provide splashes of color and help define different locales.
Similarities to today's politics
While the look suggests modern politics, characters don't match up to current American political personalities — thankfully, the most Trump-like senator is spoken of, but never appears — yet the conspirators' concerns certainly echo today's partisan politics, adding suspense to the coup. When the big moment comes, this Caesar fights valiantly in J. Alex Cordaro's thrilling fight choreography. The career soldier seems capable of besting six nervous politicians, but succumbs to many small wounds.
Mulcahy's long first act continues through Antony's famous speech condemning the conspirators, culminating in the ironic death of a fleeting character, Cinna the Poet (Jacob Dresch, terrific in several roles), killed by a mob mistaking him for a conspirator.
The dark irony continues in the play's final 45 minutes, which plays briskly but inevitably without the first part's powerful rise. Fortunately, strong performances by Woronicz, Wood, Plachy, and a capable supporting ensemble drive the action well, as Rome fractures in a post-Caesar power struggle. Cordaro's work shines again in a slow motion battle scene staged to driving music. Also impressive are Grace Gonglewski as Brutus's wife Portia, and Rosalyn Coleman as Caesar's mate Calpurnia; the Romans push their women aside, and could use their counsel.
As characters die in the play's climax the actors remain on stage, a literal piling-up of bodies that not only solves the problem of removing them in scene changes (too often, they just skitter off in blackouts), but also builds to a powerful final effect, capping a smart, well-measured production.
A larger Shakespeare vision
Julius Caesar shows PSF, in its 25th season, at a height of artistic confidence. They trust their audience to appreciate a less traditional production without overstating its relevance. On the company's mainstage, a similarly clear, stylish, yet still ambitious and high-quality production of West Side Story plays through July 3 for audiences looking for something more familiar and less Shakespeare (though, of course, Jerome Robbins's concept was to re-tell Romeo and Juliet).
Later this season, The Taming of the Shrew (July 13 - August 7), directed by Philadelphia dynamo Matt Pfeiffer, plays in rep on the mainstage with Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (July 21 - August 7), using the same cast for both. Love's Labour's Lost (July 27 - August 7) — PSF's annual "extreme Shakespeare" production, staged as we think plays were done in Shakespeare's time — closes what should confirm PSF as the region's most important Shakespeare producer.