Don't look for togas and sandals in this production of Julius Caesar at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Director Risa Brainin gives the classic drama set in ancient Rome a wild contemporary spin with costumes and props. She uses jarringly modern music for emphasis and strobe lights to heighten storms and battles. Even the eerie soothsayer, played by Christina Lang, is dressed in a smart black dress with matching accessories.
Does it work? Does it ever!
The rather stark stage setting by scenic designer Russell Metheny includes some short pillars for a Roman effect, along with angular moveable screens with such mobility and versatility they merge seamlessly into every locale and scene.
Aled Davies is a regal Caesar in modern dress suit and swirling cape, surrounded by the Roman senators and security men with earphones. The chorus of tradespeople and citizens includes media folks, reporters with notebooks, television cameramen and photographers, and after the first shock of recognition, they seem a normal part of the scene, covering the events involving the country's leaders.
Davies' Caesar displays just enough arrogance and ambition to justify the conspirators' worries and to make even the noble Brutus take notice. Richard Klautsch creates a memorable Marcus Brutus. He is calm, thoughtful and intelligent, but too trusting. Klautsch radiates a gentle goodness of character that expects the same rational honesty of others, which leads him to believe the scheming Cassius and participate in the murder of his friend. He is convinced that to allow tyranny under Caesar is wrong; but he also knows in his heart it is wrong to kill Caesar. It is his confident but misplaced trust that leads him to allow Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral--his fatal mistake. Toward the end of the play, Klautsch's performance becomes rather flat, as though Brutus has lost interest in the struggle with Antony and Octavius.
Douglas Frederick portrays the most ingratiating Cassius I have ever watched. His performance does indeed have the "lean and hungry look" decried by Caesar, but his earnestness and rather swashbuckling appearance (even in modern, disheveled clothing) wins him more sympathy than the character usually evokes.
Tom Ford is excellent as Casca, one of the conspirators, whose hands, dripping with Caesar's blood, visibly tremble after the terrible event. Carie Yonekawa is fiery and beautiful as Portia, the wife of Brutus, who uses all her womanly wiles to learn her husband's secret worries. Kathryn Cherasaro as Calpurnia is elegantly distraught as she tells her husband, Caesar, about her frightening dream and begs him to stay at home.
The conspirators' murder is so fearsome and well directed that the tension is like an enormous weight in the silent theater. There was not even a cough to break the spell, until a senator cries out "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead." Then a noise like a sigh of expelled breath followed as the assassins bathed their hands in Caesar's blood.
David Anthony Smith gives a brilliant performance. His Mark Antony is definitely a scene-stealer with his modern blond god appearance, shades and sockless shoes. When he sees the ravaged body of his beloved friend Caesar, his murderous glare at the senators makes him look like a fierce, crazed Mel Gibson. His rendition of the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech is masterful, starting with calm, low-key emotion, and building to the crowd rousing "... move the stones of Rome to rise and mutiny."
The battle scenes are creatively handled, with cameras flashing, staircases rolling about and everyone tapping away on laptop computers. Modern warfare indeed.
Director Brainin's concept for this play definitely has dramatic echoes of today's world--not just the technology, which is cleverly integrated, but also the age-old struggle between idealism and reality, ambition and abuse of power.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Risa Brainin
Aug. 12, 13, 21 and 24 at 8 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Aug. 22
Idaho Shakespeare Festival, 5645 Warm Springs Ave.
More info/tickets: 336-9221, www.idahoshakespeare.org.