Slapdash Caesar fails to thrill Billsville

The traveling contingent of the Aquila Theatre Company brought the struggle of Brutus and the downfall of Caesar to the ’62 Center this past weekend. For two nights on the Main Stage, a cast of eight filled the 20 roles in Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare’s 1599 classic.

Talking about Shakespeare is tricky business. When commenting on a production of one of his plays, it’s easiest to assume that the play itself is already perfect, and that only the technical, directorial and theatrical choices of those putting it on can be heralded or criticized.

Having never parsed Julius Caesar in any English class before, I didn’t walk into the show knowing exactly who says what to whom, but I did walking out. In terms of plot, Aquila did a solid job delivering their lines with some indicative gesticulation to convey to dilettantes like me what is going on amidst the tumbles of Shakespearean language.

That said, several of the actors did play their parts exquisitely. Steve Stout (Marullus/Marc Antony) delivered one of the play’s most captivating moments in his rousing and caustic speech to the Roman citizens over Caesar’s coffin at the Forum. Richard Sheridan Willis (Brutus/Cicero/Cinna the Poet), too, demonstrated the necessary restraint required of the psychologically torn Brutus, especially compared to Charles Goforth’s Cassius, a melodramatic and stilted character played as if he were a theatrical robot.

Reginald Metcalf (Julius Caesar), a black actor twice the size of the others onstage, played the small title role well. I would add that choosing to cast Caesar as a non-white male was one of the few anachronistic decisions that actually worked in the play’s favor. Unlike the other multiple instances of modern sensibility that insidiously crept into the play’s interpretation, Metcalf brought useful dimension to the role of Caesar by relaying subtly both his eminence and his weakness.

Despite these effective portrayals of character, the show’s technical choices spoke another story. In fact, I often found myself distracted by confusing amalgams of misdirected light and sound, amidst many potentially engaging scenes.

Because of awkwardly placed lights, actors were frequently standing in one another’s shadows, even if they were the center of action. The effect was so obvious that it initially had me thinking that there was some artistic reason for the confusion. Alas, no pattern emerged to explain it, and the distraction became a useless hindrance.

Between each scene was a jarring soundtrack of “original music” composed by Aquila’s Dan Lipton. The songs, which sounded more like MIDI files of snare drums and cellos, may have been the created by the composer’s 12-year-old son after he received an electric piano for his birthday. Though obviously intended to portray the dismal, militaristic or excited tone of the scene that preceded it, each song brought instead the feeling of being beaten over the head by the sewer music from the original Nintendo Mario Brothers videogame.

Costumes, too, were a quixotic mess. Senators wore form-fitting robes the color of unchewed watermelon bubblegum that billowed behind them as they strode and could have passed for a women’s nightgown, while underneath they wore black knee-height rain boots, knickers and partially unbuttoned, collarless dress-shirts. When out in the storm or huddling in a conspiratorial circle, they wore black trench coats with the lapels popped and fedoras slung low over their eyes. In battle, they donned World War I era uniforms complete with helmets. Not that a successful production of Julius Caesar must be performed in togas and sandals, but the mix of futuristic nightwear and private-eye chic seemed haphazardly chosen at best.

The show’s backdrop did little to enhance the production. The projection that switched between a close-up of a stormy sky and a dual cityscape portraying both Roman buildings with Corinthian columns and a drab modern city street, was another misguided element probably intent on demonstrating the play’s spanning of time periods but instead appeared childishly conceived.

Indeed, the entire technical execution of the show reminded me strongly of one of many atrocious moments in my seventh grade “Theatre Topics” class, when groups of us had to reinterpret a famous scene from a play in our own style. There was always that group that never could agree and ended up throwing together a half-rap, half-musical rendition of The Lion King in which they all wore overalls and oversized neon pink sunglasses and drew flames on the blackboard as a backdrop. There was nothing I could do but appreciate the senseless fireworks of it all.

The only difference, of course, is that this wasn’t seventh grade, and it wasn’t a Disney movie. I daresay neither the world of professional theatre nor Shakespeare would be proud.

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