Brutus needed his mom on March 14, 44 B.C. "And if all your friends were jumping off a cliff," she would have admonished, "would you do that too?" But no such character exists. (He probably wouldn't have listened to her anyway; none of the men heed women's words in this play.) Brutus joins the other senators in murder, leading to civil war and his own demise. Though it examines issues of loyalty and politics, the timeliest topic of the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis' Julius Caesar is its caution regarding mob mentality. From the opening scene, in which the citizens are chided about their easily shifting alliances, to the ultimate lesson in spinning a political situation ("Friends, Romans, countrymen..."), this production speaks to the dangers of mindlessly following the crowd.
The Shakespeare Festival does not follow the crowd of artistic "interpreters" of the Bard's work who update elements of this play. Composer Robin Weatherall contributes appropriate music, Scenic designer Jim Burwinkel provides Roman columns and regal doors, costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis dresses the cast in historically accurate togas and sandals. Unfortunately, with all the senators in "uniform" togas with the same red trim, it becomes difficult to distinguish them. While it adds to the image of them working as a group, when combined with their amplified voices it often makes it hard to tell who's talking. Stylistically inconsistent notes are hit by other production choices. Actors in the crowd scenes wear oddly cartoonish masks, ghoulish guises that seem out of place in a show that's otherwise realistic. Matthew E. Adelson's lighting design is adequate in illuminating the faces of actors but often steals focus from the action in its theatricality; the cues are sometimes too obvious or too vibrantly colored.
A solid cast of twenty plays the many characters required for this story, some portraying four different roles. Standouts include Gary Glasgow, whose cobbler earns laughter; and James Beaman, who clearly delivers Casca's long story about Caesar refusing the crown. Raphael Nash Thompson creates an imposing Caesar, one who could inspire fear and loyalty. David Andrew Macdonald as the brooding Brutus and Mark Mineart as sly Cassius are best in a late scene when they nearly come to blows. As Mark Antony, Jim Butz breathes fresh life into familiar speeches. All the actors speak the meter precisely (accenting the final syllable in words like "glanced" or "transformed" when required by poetic law); Butz manages to make it sound natural.
Butz's kick-ass delivery of Antony's crowd-stirring speech jump starts the second half of the play but isn't able to overcome the pace malaise that plagues the show. Instead of building like a rumor, the production plods like a carefully planned memo. Scene changes halt forward motion, and director Joe Discher seems to have told the actors that every single word is of equal importance. The soldier's entrance for the climactic battle scene typifies Discher's approach: They enter in a deliberate march, keeping careful rhythm, get into place precisely and go into a slow-motion battle sequence. If this had been the exception rather than the rule, the careful tempo might have built suspense rather than exemplifying the pulse of the play.
Now in its sixth year, the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis has become part of the summer landscape. Many in the opening-night crowd arrived early, brought elaborate picnics and reveled in their own preshow celebrations. People look for their favorite juggler, know where the porta-johns live and when the energetic Green Show will be performed. Tradition and familiarity are positive aspects of the festival; the challenge now is to find the passion and inspiration that'll keep the crowds coming back.