Review: ‘Julius Caesar’ at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

 ‘Julius Caesar’ draws political and historical parallels

Julius Caesar, directed by Chris Cotterman, in a production by the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, is an exploration of what motivates a man in relationship to his government. In examining those vying for power, does he choose the lesser of two evils? Does he follow the crowd, running down the path of conformity, or does he hold fast to his honor and do the right thing? The themes of the play ring familiar in this election year, as we’re merely 100 or so days from the Presidential election. The play raises many questions as it relates to civics: To what lengths should citizens go to save their republic from tyranny—is assassination acceptable? Is a politician ever truly a man “of the people”? What is the nature of loyalty?

Anne Shoemaker (Julius Caesar). Photo courtesy of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.
Anne Shoemaker (Julius Caesar). Photo courtesy of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Though the titular Julius Caesar (Anne Shoemaker), Dictator of Rome, appears to be the central character, anti-Caesar conspirator Brutus (the excellent Shannon Ziegler) is the canvas on which Shakespeare painted the various motives and emotions that focus on what the play is really about. Honor is a virtue that runs through the spine of the play. Honor is especially important to Brutus, for Brutus, after all “loves honor more than death”.

Roman tribunes, Flavius (Josh Thomas) and Murellas (Kelly Hutchison) started the play off by insulting the commoners for their change of loyalty to Caesar from Pompey, the former Consul of Rome, who has fled to Egypt after a military defeat.

Soon after, Katie Gallagher’s Soothsayer told Caesar to beware “the ides of March”, bringing a sense of foreboding and darkness to the story. Like many a leader throughout history, the Romans in this play fear Caesar’s power as dictator. “This man is now a God,” complains (the “lean and hungry”) Cassius, the excellent Utkarsh Rajawat. Thereafter, Casca’s  (Terry O’Hara) told a captivating, powerful story of Caesar’s three-time refusal to accept a crown as King, making one wonder about Ceasar’s true motives.

Brutus’ put upon wife, Portia (Katherine Vary) bears her husband’s secrets, at one point, imploring for him to “unfold to me your other half, why you are heavy”. Cotterman’s use of the Shakespearean method of cross-gender casting produced a convincing stage kiss between Vary and Ziegler (Cotterman also made effective use of another Shakespearean method, “doubling” that is having actors play multiple roles). Vary’s excellent Portia was the living embodiment of Brutus’ wife. In another section of the wife department, Liz Galuardi gave a strong performance as Calphurnia, Ceasar’s wife.

Fred Fletcher-Jackson brought a decided authority and steadiness to his role as Mark Antony, Caesar’s general. “A plain blunt man who loves his friend.”

Most everyone has heard of or seen Caesar’s assassination and Brutus’ line: “Et tu, Brute?” Cotterman made effective use of all parts of the stage in that scene; the staging of which was harrowing, violent and blunt.

Marky Antony’s famous speech at Caesar’s funeral, beginning with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” was certifiably excellent. Standing on a natural, outdoor hill, between two trees (a great staging choice by Cotterman) Fletcher-Jackson gave a commanding speech in a critical part of the story.

As Julius Caesar wound down to its inevitable clash between Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s forces, many performances stood out. Shoemaker was spell-binding as Caesar’s ghost, complete with her bloody shirt. I loved Pindarus, Cassius’ Bondman, (Gallagher). I enjoyed Hutchison’s energetic portrayal of Titinius, Cassius’ friend. Rajawat’s outstanding portrayal of Cassius makes him an actor to watch.

April Forrer’s costume design was reminiscent of the late-1700s (tri-corner hats abounded), and against the hilly, green outdoor backdrop, the players looked almost like a painting. The 18th Century motif was from Cotterman’s edict of no togas.

Oh, those fight scenes—they were adrenaline packed thanks to Fight Choreographer Tegan Williams. I loved the thrust, outdoor stage (built on 10 flats). You’ll love the musical numbers put on by the cast before the show and during the intermission, thanks to Music Directors Alice Stanley and Thomas.

The sum of the proceedings is this: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s Julius Caesar is a triumph of visual spectacle and superior performances. Buy a ticket and you’ll purchase a wonderful evening of Shakespeare in the Park.

Running Time: Two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.

Julius Caesar plays through Sunday, August 21, 2016 at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at Outdoors in the Meadow at Johns Hopkins Evergreen Museum & Library  4545 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 921-9455, or purchase them online.

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