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'Julius Caesar' a fine modern tragedy

THEATER REVIEW: "Julius Caesar" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater ★★★½

Chris Jones

February 15, 2013

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Jonathan Munby's visually thrilling, exciting and richly wrought production of "Julius Caesar" — which opened Wednesday night and features everything from a flash mob to a hot-dog stand to soldiers rappelling from the rafters of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater —comes to life with celebrants milling around some granite-clad capitol or another.

It seems like inaugural Washington, D.C., as the audience enters, but Munby makes his point about America and then resists flying in the Stars and Stripes for a familiar critique from across the pond. Instead, once David Darlow's ambivalently calibrated Julius Caesar makes his appearance beneath a massive banner pointing supporters to http://www.caesarforall.com, it feels like the show makes a sudden dash for Eastern Europe, home of Bulgarian assassins, or the Middle East, where once-omnipotent leaders can perish in the heartbeat of an Arab Spring.

William Shakespeare's famous opening scene of plebeians celebrating a man who might be a great leader, a monarchical threat to the Republic or just someone of whom they get bored, is killed off by a couple of cynical security guards. One of them fires a gun into the air, which makes one especially jumpy in Chicago these days. As the crowd of tacky button sellers and skateboarders disperses, you can't help but be struck by how well this rising British director, with the help of a deceptively complex and layered design from Alexander Dodge, one of the best I've seen in this particular space, has navigated one of the trickiest tracks of any contemporized Shakespeare: His production is plenty specific to sear with direct matters of the moment but smart enough to step away into more nuanced and ambiguous visual metaphor when the play needs to simmer across time and place.

In this extraordinarily well-charted and briskly paced production, many of the individual scenes fuse together with sudden and quite dazzling fullness; entire environments quickly envelope you, and Munby and his designers have thought up a plethora of striking images. The conspirators parade, bloody hands in the air; the ghost of Julius Caesar floats on illuminated track; a security camera captures assassination; conspirators pull out smartphones for documentation and description, as today one would. The famous crowd scenes in this play are especially well realized. Munby, demonstrably, is very interested in the timeless spot where the people's revolution meets the people's lack of planning.

Everything could not be clearer. Jason Kolotouros' unstinting Cassius is relentless in its self-serving drive, gorgeously contrasted with Larry Yando's sardonic Casca, which has the kind of politicized pop that makes the language feel so immediate, it pulls you up short. An Achilles heel, though, it reveals itself at one of the play's most famous lines: "Et tu, Brute?"

Brutus here is played by a very capable British actor named John Light, a handsome, hyperarticulate, brooding fellow whose speeches are filled with smarts and context. Light is making his American debut in an Americanized concept with a pretty pathetic American accent. That, one can forgive him. He could be doing a political Piers Morgan (a redundancy?). But it's harder to see past the deeper problem: Light seems to miss one of the most fundamental aspects of Brutus: a good and decent man who loves his country. Light's Brutus is certainly tortured by what is and is not expedient, fair enough, but tortured ain't the whole picture of Mr. B.

Light doesn't let you feel in your gut that requisite inherent decency and thus when J.C asks that famous question, one's mind goes to, "Really? What makes him different from all the others? Where did we see that?"

That same issue crops up when we hear that Portia (played by the intense Brenda Barrie) is, alas, no more. It's complex for Brutus, of course, but heck, she was his wife. Yet you read little pain on Light's face. He is, as with so many guest stars at this theater, insufficiently connected to the whole. He could, I suspect, fix that in a heartbeat if he just decided to allow himself to show Chicago his vulnerability. Brutalist appearances to the contrary, we embrace that here.

Aside from that important matter, you won't have any trouble embracing this production, which zips along. I wouldn't say that Munby quite figured out the right metaphor for the sense of spooky unease that takes over Rome in the text — he has the intensely committed McKinley Carter, who plays the Soothsayer, singing her anguish in the balcony like one of those wordless vocalists they favor at the Cirque du Soleil, which has its pluses, but Carter is better when she is down with the rest of the folks, one foot in reality. Heck, there's one storm after another raging over the East Coast these days, it seems. Unease isn't hard to evoke, even if it's just climate change. Perhaps.

When: Through March 24

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (approximate)

Tickets: $58-$78; 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com