Shakespeare must have been napping when he titled Julius Caesar. Perhaps The Rise of Antony and the Fall of Brutus and Cassius was too long to fit on the marquee. Whatever you call it, Caesar is a story of political conspiracy, bold choices and their consequences. A solid core of engaging actors portray the main roles in St. Louis Shakespeare's production, but they can't save the show from a lack of clarity in design and directing choices.
The set's red-granite columns and a strangely pastel cyclorama in the background place the story in no clear place, time or mood. A confusing opening scene with people hanging banners and some grumpy folks pulling them down launches the play, followed by another mystifying scene that introduces the main characters. Something apparently important happens offstage, with Caesar being offered a crown and refusing it. Cassius (an icy David Wassilak) is obviously plotting against Caesar and, in Iago fashion, coercing Brutus to join him, but the motives seem murky.
Brutus' decision to join the conspirators in the murder of Caesar is followed by two of the production's three best scenes. Each features a conversation between husband and wife, but each ends very differently. In the first, Brooke Edwards as Portia confronts her husband Brutus (a brooding David Steckel) and demands knowledge of his covert activities. Edwards and Steckel connect with passion, and as Brutus promises to share his dark secrets, we sense their love for one another. In the next scene, Caesar's wife Calphurnia (Penney Kols) pleads with her husband (Richard Lewis) to stay away from the Senate because she dreamed of his death. While initially agreeing to his wife's wishes, Caesar is easily swayed by a conspirator to ignore the warning.
The staging of Caesar's death is one of those odd directorial choices that plague this production. Caesar is stabbed by each conspirator. He stumbles and falls, but like a Roman Energizer Bunny, he manages to stand again and walk upstairs to reach Brutus, who delivers the final blow.
The most famous scene in Julius Caesar is the one in which Marc Antony (Andrew Neiman) uses classic rhetorical techniques to overthrow Brutus' authority. And it's easily the best scene in this production, with Neiman's finely tuned performance keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. The problem? Instead of scheduling an intermission right after Caesar's murder, director Donna Northcott forges on through this crucial oratory scene (making for a first act that goes on for an hour and 40 minutes). When the house lights finally came up, a few audience members wondered whether the show was over.
Sadly, it was not. The slim, 45-minute second act presents a series of uninteresting battle scenes followed by some appropriately horrifying suicides and the eventual triumph of Antony and Octavius Caesar (nicely played by Ben Ritchie). The show ends with praise for Brutus and a nicely staged curtain call.
Costumes and lighting provide more distraction than help. The uneven lighting never clearly delineates indoor and outdoor scenes, while the odd choices of cyclorama color continue to confound reason. The costume choices range from serviceable to obviously anachronistic (Caesar dons a shirt with obvious Velcro fastenings) to ill-fitting (Brutus' denim look appears to have come from the "Irregulars" bin at Ye Olde Gappe). The excellent portrayals of the central characters, along with solid work by ensemble members Brendan Allred and Jeremy Thomas, are overshadowed by these sloppy production choices; it's as if Northcott is painting with a thick brush when fine detail work is required. The actors -- and the audience -- deserve better.
Correction published 1/26/05: In the original version of this review, we mistakenly called Caesar's wife "Octavia." Her name, in fact, is Calphurnia; there is no Octavia in the play. In St. Louis Shakespeare's production, Penney Kols played the role of Calphurnia. Octavius was played by Ben Ritchie. The above version reflects the corrected text.