Betrayal lurks around every corner when a ruler’s ability to rule comes into question. Whether real or imagined, its weighty presence stands as a cautionary phantom in A Noise Within’s Julius Caesar. Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliot have turned Shakespeare’s thought-provoking political drama into a powerful exposé on the less noble actions of men, anchored by two terrific performances and a commanding industrial design.
It is a play mostly known for its famous quotes: “Beware the ides of March,” “it was Greek to me,” “The fault is not in our stars…But in ourselves,” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” – a masterpiece of words; crafty and ironic one minute, fiercely direct the next.
Rafael Goldstein (Mark Antony) uses them brilliantly in a dazzling speech that is the crown jewel of this production. With Caesar’s broken body laid out on a rolling scaffold, Goldstein perches on top of a Genie Lift, an ingenious piece of mechanical equipment that further assists the actor in punctuating his message. It is an electrifying performance; one you’ll be talking about long after his galvanizing eulogy ends and the house lights come up.
As Brutus, Robertson Dean deftly takes us into the psyche of a tortured idealist who wrestles with duty to country and loyalty to friend. He is both noble and flawed, and though we know how this story will end, Dean draws us into the character’s complex journey by way of his own humanity in another potent performance.
Likewise do the rest of the conspirators bring a feverish intensity to their cause. Physicality is visually imposing yet there are scenes in which key players observe punctuation rather than verse structure which makes the dense language harder for the audience to digest. Luckily the intention is always clear so if one misses the textual nuances it is still possible to follow the dramatic action.
There are strong supporting performances by Patrick O’Connell as a towering Caesar, Deborah Strang as the duplicitous Casca, and Jill Hill as Brutus’s wife, Portia. Huddled on the floor before her husband with her wheelchair inches away, she is the picture of heartbreak.
Throughout the first half of the play a black and white netherworld, characterized by harsh white lights and their accompanying shadows, becomes the canvas upon which the moral shades of gray of the characters are revealed. Not until after Caesar’s death does lighting designer Ken Booth introduce warmth of any kind, flipping the switch to flood the stage with red at that point, and later, introducing an amber glow that becomes more prominent as the consequences of the assassination begin to be revealed.
Angela Balogh Calin carries through the color scheme in her authoritarian costumes which appear futuristic but also retro with fur stole accents and elegant or utilitarian hats that hearken back to earlier decades. Original music by Robert Oriol underscores the action and provides powerful scene transitions reminiscent of a 1940’s psychological thriller. Its effects pierce the ambiguity of character intent in true crime drama fashion.
It is no coincidence that the word honourable, or some variation of it, appears at least 41 times in Julius Caesar. As the play waxes poetic on the nature of honor and ambition, the only certainty is that power always comes with a price, though often the cost is not revealed until it is too late. A Noise Within’s production brings that lesson home with sobering efficiency and dashes of humor, clocking in just short of 2½ hours.
Shakespeare in LA
March 22 – May 8, 2015 [now extended to May 24)
A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107.
Tickets: 626-356-3100 or www.ANoiseWithin.org