JULIUS CAESAR (PA Shakespeare): A staging come to steal away your hearts

Republished by kind permission from Neals Paper.

Spencer Plachy as Marc Antony with Ensemble. Photo by Lee A. Butz.
Spencer Plachy as Marc Antony with Ensemble. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

One must praise Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s CAESAR and do everything to keep it from being buried until the maximum number of people see Patrick Mulcahy’s intelligent, timely production.

Theatrically, Greg Wood’s magnificent Cassius and Spencer Plachy’s robust and strategic Marc Antony drive his show. Woods shows the rightful resentment a Roman citizen would have to seeing a representative, even one as high as a Prime Minister, become a dictator while also revealing Cassius’s cynicism, ambition, and cunning. (You notice in Mulcahy’s production, more than in most, how often Cassius is right in instinct and intent while the more cautious, allegedly more noble Brutus is wrong to the point of sabotage.)

Plachy’s Antony is smart, dashing, and human, able to stir people’s souls in one instant while conspiring to deny them all he promised in another. Which brings us to the main and most stunning virtue of Mulcahy’s staging — the exposure of politics and how much the best for Rome and Romans is at the center of Shakespeare’s play, often underrated or underplayed in spite of being so popular.

Mulcahy, through the portrayals of Wood, Plachy, and others such as the contrasting Henry Woronicz as Brutus, the fascinating Casca of the increasingly fascinating Christopher Patrick Mullen, and the strong, piercingly intuitive Portia of Grace Gonglewski, accentuates Shakespeare’s trenchant look at the subtle operations of politics. At a time when Britain has been hobbled by a binding vote, and the United States embarks on a election featuring two unsavory, uninspiring candidates, we see the fragility of democracy and wonder at policies and how they will affect our liberty and the future of great nations.

Such is the matter Shakespeare addresses in JULIUS CAESAR: Rome at a crossroads when the democracy in its republic is threatened by the potential for the tyranny of a single voice that might shout down all of the freedom Romans have achieved and cherished in its golden day.

Keith Hamilton Cobb as Julius Caesar and Spencer Plachy as Mark Antony. Photo by Lee A. Butz
Keith Hamilton Cobb as Julius Caesar and Spencer Plachy as Mark Antony. Photo by Lee A. Butz

Brutus and Cassius are not callous dissidents. They are the John Adams and Alexander Hamilton of their time. They see danger in terms of the erosion of Rome’s democratic fabric, and they take action against the symbol of what they and other sober, sound judging leaders regard as the root of the trouble, Julius Caesar (George III or Lord North) who is on the brink of having final say on everything, including the way one conducts one’s own business that is not the government’s.

To Shakespeare’s credit, and Keith Hamilton Cobb’s, Caesar is not portrayed nor characterized as an anathema. He may have imperial leanings, and may decline the suit of a Roman noble, but he can also engage in conversation with Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators and doesn’t display much of the malice they fear and which will be later be expressed by Caligula and Nero. Shakespeare and Mulcahy show the justification of the conspirators’ choice while making us wonder if it is necessary to kill Caesar. (Political confrontation, by challenge in the Senate, would not be as possible in the last century B.C. as we would hope it might be today, and that the United Kingdom may have to test.)

Mulcahy and troupe go into great detail. Wood shows Cassius’s jealousy, smallness, and retributive traits even as he gives him logic, persuasion, and cause worth considering. Woronicz conveys Brutus’s distaste for the violence and finality of assassination. He never allows Brutus the passion with which Wood endows Cassius or Mullen gives to Casca.

This is a cerebral reading that also captures the emotions of the characters involved, Brutus’s being muted as Woronicz deliberates all and shows no zeal or enthusiasm beyond agreeing to participate in an act that he comes to see as fitting and proper. Mulcahy’s production lets you hear all arguments and makes sure they remain interesting and worthy of your hearing and consideration. You see the range of the conspirators, from the committed to the petty. You glean the intelligence and sincerity of all involved. When Plachy makes his mark (no pun meant) as Antony intones his gripping funeral speech, a sure lesson in why someone to wants to persuade should always wait to go last, you see an new and different kind of dynamism that jibes with the tenor of the production but adds some sophistication, and sophistry, to it.

Plachy, so young and virile compared to the conspirators, and so affectionately passions, sets a new tone. In doing so, he also presages the new politician (even though it’s Marcel Logan’s Octavius that prevails and leads Rome to its next period of greatness, albeit as a virtual dictator).

Mulcahy’s is a rich, thoughtful, and thought-provoking production that not only gives vivid differentiating attention to character details and makes use of some witty design maneuvers, such as having white banners flying when Caesar is being lionized (and later killed) at the Capital and black banners to indicate Brutus and Cassius’s war encampments .

The late-act war scenes that often bog down productions of JULIUS CAESAR keep the pace going here, again because of Wood’s relentless Cassius, who I remind is always right, and Plachy’s dash, articulation, and humanity as Antony. Logan, Peter Danelski, and Ryan Hagan also acquit themselves well in this remarkable staging. Read more on Neals Paper >>

[Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Schubert Theatre, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA] June 22–July 17, 2016; pashakespeare.org.

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