by JK Clarke
Imagine a scenario in which a politician starts to gain too much popularity even though he proposes turning the present governmental system on its ear, ignoring all its rules and values. And imagine his friends and colleagues conferring and deciding to mutiny and destroy him and his plans. No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, but rather the destruction of a much older Republic, the Roman Republic. The story is Julius Caesar, as told by William Shakespeare. Its present run, by the brand new Wheelhouse Theater Company (through March 13 at The Davenport Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen) turns out to be another important reminder that history repeats itself . . . maybe not verbatim, but repeats itself nonetheless.
Julius Caesar at its core is a very good play: it’s concise, direct and uncomplicated. A group of Roman Senators, becomes aware that Julius Caesar has gained too much power and popularity and that the public is aiming to crown him Emperor, thus dismantling the Republic (which eschews solo figureheads in favor of a ruling triumvirate). He is far too ambitious, they conclude, so they plot, and carry out, his assassination. Afterward, his closest ally, Mark Antony, asks that he might publicly eulogize his friend, while promising to continue to support the conspirators. They mistakenly allow it and he rallies the masses against them, creating a civil war. In the end, the senator-conspirators are overthrown and Rome ends up ruled by Antony, Flavius and Octavius Caesar. Director Jeff Wise and his company handle the straightforward, powerful plot adeptly.
Out of absolute necessity, the play has been trimmed both for time and because asking the six actors of the cast to handle the play’s 51 characters (though some have certainly been elided here) is challenge enough. But you’d hardly know it. The central thrust of the play is beautifully presented and feels unaltered.
It has been argued by scholars that the play is not the tragedy of Caesar, but rather of Brutus, who ends up compromised by his own miscalculations and hubris. So while Brendan Titley’s portrayal of Caesar in this production is terrific, it is Matt Harrington’s Brutus that is most vital to the production. Harrington pulls it off beautifully. His strong, rich voice and ability to show Brutus’s internal conflicts through subtle facial expressions is what makes the play really penetrate. Other strong performances come from David Kenner as Cassius; Ben Mehl as a straightforward, determined and manipulative Mark Antony; and Shayna Small who craftily manages to alternate scenes and characters in a quick pivot to play both Calpurnia and Portia, concerned wives of Caesar and Brutus.
In fact, it is Wise and company’s ability to easily differentiate the many characters and scenes smoothly and without creating any confusion whatsoever that makes this play really fly. At the production I attended there were two young girls, probably under the age of ten, who were riveted to the action and seemed to have no trouble whatsoever following along. As someone who began attending Shakespeare plays at the tender age of six, I cannot emphasize how vital clarity and delineation is for those who haven’t quite developed the vocabulary to follow along as easily as others.
One of the production’s highlights was a cleverly orchestrated thunderstorm during a very ominous and important establishing scene. Between Drew Florida’s lighting, Matt Bittner’s sound design and Brittany Vasta’s set, this turned out to be one of the more inventive set pieces I have seen in such a small production of an important play. With this winning production of Julius Caesar, Wheelhouse Theater Company has quickly established itself as an exciting new company. This run of Julius Caesar ends this weekend, but it is a great, inexpensive way to get an introduction to such an important and always relevant play. We eagerly anticipate their forthcoming productions.
Julius Caesar. Through March 13 at the Davenport Theatre (354 West 45th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.wheelhousetheatercompany.com
Photos courtesy of DDPR