William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a manly play set in a primitive time — you won't find a Nancy Pelosi type helming the gavel at the Roman Senate in 44 B.C., and instead of filibustering, the Bard's statesmen are more likely to pull out their knives to make a political point. So it is dramatic indeed when, as the new Nashville Shakespeare Festival production heads toward the close of Act 1, disaffected faction heads Brutus and Cassius lead a cadre of like-minded citizens in hacking Caesar to death.
It's a famous (and bloody) scene, of course, and it's executed here with an eerie choreography, the murderers closing around their unsuspecting prey in a compelling and deadly dance. And when your Caesar is none other than ex-Tennessee Titan Eddie George — one of the most celebrated athletes in Nashville history — the staging holds particular interest.
George — now a businessman and football commentator as well as a stage and television performer — looks as fit as ever. He certainly cuts a striking figure in costume designer June Kingsbury's white robe and burgundy shoulder drape, and his casting gives the part a fitting spark of star power. And though his role is much less demanding than his co-stars', his speechmaking is mostly adequate to the task. Yet George's declamations are occasionally difficult to hear, due either to delivery or the imprecise acoustics of Troutt Theater. We lose some of the poetry. In particular, his "Et tu, Brute?" lacks impact.
In a lesser way, the same might be said for the play's more major players, all actors with way more experience. But diction is not the main problem that plagues Brian Webb Russell and David Compton.
As Brutus and Cassius, respectively, Russell and Compton portray the instigators of the plot to kill the military hero Caesar — who is suddenly way too big for his britches and a clear threat to their own political ascendance. They create somber, purposeful characters, and they deliver their lines with professionalism. Yet they seem almost colorless — competent stand-ins whose lack of personality makes for tolerable but generally pallid drama.
The show's other principal, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby as Mark Antony, attempts to enliven the proceedings with an energetic performance, and has the privilege of delivering the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. Still, his portrayal comes off mostly as melodramatic.
Aside from the riveting murder scene and the fairly engrossing, saber-clanking Act 2 battle scene (fight choreography by David Wilkerson), Beki Baker's direction results in a staging that is technically acceptable but ultimately prosaic.
NSF artistic director Denice Hicks plays three ancillary male roles. (Two other women, Maya Abram and Elizabeth Walsh, also portray three or four small male roles each.) The gender-bending may be a sly inversion of the Globe Theatre's practice of casting men in women's roles. Yet on a stage otherwise chock-full of swaggering, ambitious, sometimes bloodthirsty men, the stunt casting seems to detract from the production's implicit critique of politics as macho blood sport. Other supporting performers such as Jon Royal, Tamira Henry, Robyn Berg and Matthew Raich, more conventionally cast, fare better.
Kingsbury's Act 2 soldier costumes add spark to the battle visuals, and Anne Willingham's lighting design creates a few dazzling moments. Tom McBryde's musical score effectively darkens the assassination.
As political drama, this Caesar is factually straightforward and clearly stated. As entertainment, it's somewhat of a disappointment.
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