Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000
Julius Caesar: Blunted Sword
Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre,
through October 6
Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min
Just as it did last year, the Austin Shakespeare Festival is running two productions in repertory, with similarly mixed results. One play, a comedy, is A Midsummer Night's Dream: a conceptual, rather irreverent bit of fun. The other is Julius Caesar, which, like last year's flawed Othello, has insurmountable problems that seem to come with the territory when trying to stage a traditional High Drama traditionally. The result, despite the evidence of higher aspirations, is a one-dimensional melodrama: a mixed bag of missed opportunities.
Director Ev Lunning Jr. has envisioned a monumental Rome, a man's Rome brimming with proud soldiers, stirring song, and rousing political speech. But in practice, it is a static Rome more boy than man. In a play where power lies in the descriptive passages even more than the deeds themselves, the denizens of Rome fall woefully short. Julius Caesar, perhaps more than any other play in the canon, requires a skill in oration that most of the cast cannot muster; except for Ben Wolfe's Marc Antony and Charles "Huck" Huckaby's Brutus, the cast just doesn't have the rhetorical firepower to match the text. And only Wolfe and Kenneth Bradley, who plays the fiery Cassius, seem to know how to command the stage once they are on it. The inexperience of this cast betrays itself at every turn.
It is not enough just to put the work onstage. But the way most of this production unfolds, that appears to be what was done; it seems to lack a much-needed guiding hand. Moment after moment feels arbitrary and disconnected. Ideas that, in and of themselves, might pass theatrical muster, just don't seem to work together: the too-often repeated marching song that should inspire but hasn't anything like the impact of a troop of believers in full voice; the ribbons that serve for blood during the public knifing scene that are more comical than elegant -- a flurry of string that becomes silly; the projection of Caesar's ghost, an inanimate line drawing that instills no believable fear; the staged battle that hasn't any swordplay of note, but is all obvious, anticipated blows and unreal deaths.
In an election year (and not just in the United States), when political rhetoric attains far more importance as it moves into citizens' daily lives -- often with the attendant question of just what constitutes a fair, reflective democracy, one that counts on the accessibility, and accountability, of those in power -- Julius Caesar should make for compelling drama. This conservative Caesar lacks that political punch.