Gory, Sexy Spectacle

The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre does a fine job with Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'

Though it's a theatrical mainstay, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar isn't performed as often as, say, Hamlet. Everyone knows "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," and, "Et tu, Brute?" but the structure of the play is not burned into our collective consciousness in the way that Romeo and Juliet is.

Or when I say "our collective consciousness," perhaps I simply mean "my memory."

For instance, the famous lines that I quoted above, and the assassination of Caesar himself: Did you remember that all of that happens before Act 3 closes? In the Arizona Repertory Theatre's current production at the UA (cut down from the full script), this means that the title character is dead before intermission.

Yes, Julius Caesar is largely a supporting character in his own play. Instead, the play is focused on Caesar's protégée, Brutus (played by James Conway). In the beginning of the play, savvy Cassius (Joe Hubbard) convinces Brutus that Caesar is well on his way to becoming a dictator, and prevails upon Brutus to join an assassination conspiracy.

After the bloody deed is done, Brutus and Cassius must deal with the fallout from their actions, as charismatic Mark Antony (Robert Don Mower) persuades the Romans to riot.

As Julius Caesar, Aaron Blanco spends more time as a corpse then he does alive. In fact, his role in this production seems to be that of a dramatic body. In one of his few speaking scenes, Blanco is nearly naked, doing his best to imitate an impressive marble statue as a slave girl wipes him down. Then, after he is killed, he spends a long time lying on the stage in a pool of blood as the others declaim over his body. He spends an even longer time under a blanket as Antony speaks to the Roman people, before Antony dramatically reveals Caesar's corpse. (Impressively, not once did I notice the blanket moving with the actor's breath.) Finally, Blanco makes one more bloody, semi-naked appearance in the second act, appearing as a reproachful ghost. (Here, Blanco rises from below the stage, a neat theatrical effect.)

I had the notion walking in that the play was all about Brutus' decision to murder Caesar. But because we see very little of Caesar as a leader, and none of Brutus and Caesar's relationship, this dilemma isn't actually at the heart of the play. Rather, the main themes are opportunism and guilt: Who's going to take best advantage of this turbulent political moment? Brutus makes several bad calls, including underestimating Antony. And Brutus and Cassius struggle with the guilt of their actions, allowing their conflicted feelings to tear them apart. In the end, the question of whether or not Caesar was a budding dictator is beside the point; what matters is how the survivors cope with and spin the assassination.

This ART production has two smart and capable actors at its center: As Brutus and Cassius, Conway and Hubbard give intelligent, confident performances. Conway's Brutus evolves from an insecure young man into a tragic hero, while Hubbard's Cassius devolves from a conniving politician into a tortured sad-sack.

Additionally, voice and text coach Dianne J. Winslow's work is evident in the cast's musical delivery of the language; the actors' speech captures the rhythm of the text, while communicating each line's meaning clearly. Often, in Shakespearean productions, you get the sense that the actors are working against the language, trying to find humor or meaning in their delivery while barely conscious of what the words actually mean. In this production, you believe each actor actually knows what it is he is saying.

A few of the actors do end up skirting that line between clear enunciation and a quasi-British accent. As Mark Antony, Mower unfortunately succumbs to semi-British-ism. Still, he does an excellent job of conveying Antony's charisma in his crucial crowd scene, even earning a wry chuckle from the audience with his hypocritical line, "Sweet friends, let me not stir you up."

The production's director, Brent Gibbs, is also its fight director; in a play that is full of murders, suicides, crowd scenes and battles, it's crucial that you have someone at the helm who knows how to get actors to credibly move, and Gibbs does excellent work here. The stabbings are both intimate and intense; the deaths are visceral and fairly realistic. ("That's so gross," I heard an audience member say as the conspirators dipped their hands in Caesar's blood. In a world of graphic movie violence, it's nice to know that old-fashioned stage work can still make people uncomfortable.)

Costume designer Patrick Holt earned my undying love for putting the actors in multicolored togas, rather than the historically inaccurate pure white. Another nice realistic touch: Not everyone's armor is shiny. The big shots like Caesar and Octavius have decorative, polished breastplates, but everyone else's armor is rusty and dirty.

The whole play takes place in the same semicircular set. As we progress, the set is taken apart; tiles are ripped up; and pillars fall (quite dramatically), visually illustrating the destruction of Rome.

In fact, with its bloody deaths, partial nudity and special effects, this production reminds you that in its day, Julius Caesar was the equivalent of current television shows like Spartacus: a gory, sexy spectacle. But as a bonus, you leave ART's production with the beautiful rhythms of some of Shakespeare's best speeches echoing in your ears.