In writing his history plays, William Shakespeare must have made many assumptions about the educational backgrounds of his audiences or, at least, in their ability to follow the ins-and-outs of political intrigue and the ebb and flow of ancient battles as the plays unfolded. Such is the case with his Julius Caesar, which deals with the assassination of the famed Roman and the aftermath and defeat of the two chief conspirators, Brutus and Cassius.
The plot of the play is well-known. Reduced to its simplest terms, a conspiracy of Roman senators assassinate Julius Caesar (Acts I through III), precipitating a civil war that ends in their defeat (Acts IV and V). Shakespeare, of course, takes the facts of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and gives life and motivation to the characters involved in these dramatic and complex historical events through the magic of his words.
Any live production of a Shakespeare play is a welcome event, and we in central Texas are fortunate that Austin’s City Theatre Company has chosen to provide Julius Caesar as the opening offering of its 2015 season. Directed by the company’s Jeff Hickle, who had helmed a production of Romeo and Juliet in 2012, this production is enhanced by a cast that almost uniformly delivers Shakespeare’s words in distinct, articulate speeches that are easily understood and thus making the twists and turns of the plot easy to follow (although it’s always advisable to read at least a synopsis of the play before taking on any Shakespeare performance). Particular notice must be given to Dave Yakubik, who as Cassius, delivers his lines with a gravitas and clarity that sets a high standard for the rest of the cast. My companion, an experienced actress herself, thought Mr. Yakubik gave Cassius “more humanity than I usually associate with the character . . . not just an ambitious scoundrel but a conflicted individual.” Alex Arney, as Decius, also is commendable for his rendering of his dialogue.
Other members of the cast — Bob Jones (Julius Caesar), Vincent Tomasino (Brutus), Clay Avery (Antony), Jessica Riley (Calpurnia), and Kelsey Mazak (Portia) — give yeoman performances and are well supported by featured players Levi Gore, Judith Laird, Madi Ziomek, Toni Baum, Austen Simien, Greg Griffin, and Sebastian Garcia in a variety of roles.
Hickle’s cuts in the script are judicious and unobtrusive and enhance the pace of the performance. His gender-blind casting (requiring slight modifications to the text) would be offensive only to the pedantic.
A note in the program states Hickle has set this version in the Rome of the 1930s. There seems to be little attempt, beyond a bright red, be-medaled uniform coat for Caesar, to invoke a sense of Mussolini or of the National Fascist Party or anything else from that time. Indeed, the costuming is essentially from the actors’ closets with only a few token pieces that hint of Depression-era fashion. There is a bit of sartorial confusion when soldiers wear contemporary camouflage jackets but carry battle axes reminiscent of the medieval era. But this is a trivial quibble that was mildly distracting. The set and furnishings are minimalist which, of course, is appropriate to the Elizabethan theater. In this case, it is Shakespeare’s text that matters, and, I emphasize, it is the clear and well-enunciated delivery of that text by the cast that makes this production a worthwhile experience for the Austin theater-goer.
Julius Caesar continues at the City Theatre, 3823 Airport Boulevard, Austin, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m., through March 15. The production is in two acts and runs two hours, 15 minutes with an intermission.