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A ‘Julius Caesar’ in shades of black, white and gray

It was a 19th century British aristocrat, historian and politician who famously observed: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Of course centuries earlier it was a British playwright by the name of William Shakespeare who explored countless aspects of this adage in such plays as “Macbeth,” “Richard III” and “Titus Andronicus,” with “Julius Caesar,” drawn straight from ancient Roman history, offering a particularly concise and clear-eyed look at the chaos that can ensue after a man who has assumed far too much power is removed.

Watching Writers Theatre’s taut, clear, pared down and tightly stylized production of “Julius Caesar” — co-directed by Michael Halberstam and Scott Parkinson — it is impossible not to think of a slew of recent despots in the Middle East whose removal, or attempted removal, have been briefly cheered, and then followed by such calamitous internal dissension that some wearily pine for “the good old days.” Think Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. And recall how, more often than not, while the initial cry is against corruption and absolute power, and for “democracy,” lifting the cover off the pot invariably results in chaos and many heated internal power struggles.

When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Writers Theater,
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $ – $80
Info: (847) 242-6000;
Run time: 1 hour and
45 minutes with no intermission

Madrid St. Angelo plays the title character in the WRiters Theatre production of "Julius Caesar." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Madrid St. Angelo plays the title character in the Writers Theatre production of “Julius Caesar.” | Michael Brosilow

Did Julius Caesar (Madrid St. Angelo) go one giant step too far when, after leading a massive military campaign that extended and secured the Roman Empire, he returned home, assumed control of the government, made many reforms, and then proceeded to churn up public support for his being declared “dictator in perpetuity” rather than head of the Republic? Was his highly theatrical refusal of the crown – when offered to him three times by his strong supporter, Mark Anthony (Thomas Vincent Kelly), and to the cheers of the stirred up masses of his Roman supporters – beyond tolerance? (The event is beautifully chronicled here by Julian Parker as Casca.)

To be sure, this power play has riled Cassius (the wily Parkinson), a Roman senator possessed of a cool, conspiratorial nature. And he, in turn, presses Brutus (the intense Kareem Bandealy), a fellow politician in the good graces of Caesar, to join in an assassination plan. Brutus struggles to rationalize such an action by describing it as a preventative measure. And despite the dire warnings of a soothsayer (Arya Daire) to “Beware the Ides of March,” and the fervent expression of fear by his own wife, Calphurnia (Christine Bunuan), Caesar, seemingly convinced of his indomitability, heads to the Forum and is stabbed to death.

Then come the speeches designed to further sway the will of the people, with Brutus making his case for the murder being in defense of Rome, and that golden boy, Mark Antony (with Kelly restrained but eloquent in his long oration that begins with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”), ultimately turning public opinion against the assassins by reminding them of all Caesar did for them, including leaving a distribution of money to each citizen in his will.

Civil war is inevitable, as is the gradual demise of the empire. Even the necessary bond between Brutus and Cassius frays, but in one of the show’s strongest scenes is patched up, in large part because of the news of the suicide of Brutus’ beloved wife, Portia (Daire).

The Writers Theatre production (whose cast also includes a heated, poetic turn by Matt Hawkins as the ailing young Caius, with Sydney Germaine as Octavius, Caesar’s hard-edged adopted son), is spoken with meticulous attention to meaning and a controlled intensity that carries over even to the scenes of violence. Real life supplies more than enough of such scenes these days, so they hardly need to be simulated, and the bloodiness of the assassination here comes in the form of red ribbons, much in the manner of Japanese drama. And while some might find this take on the play bloodless in other ways, it feels just about right for the current moment, when war, in one form or another, is almost taken for granted.

Design-wise this “Julis Caesar” is a mostly black, white and gray affair, with a burst of red for Caesar’s cloak (the costumes are by Mara Blumenfeld). Courtney O’Neill’s set (lit by Jesse Klug) is an abstraction of solid, off-kilter columns, with Mike Tutaj supplying the tumult in the air by way of projections. The use of bland musical underscoring throughout a crucial early scene is immensely distracting in this drama that moves from argument, to action, to regret.

Thomas Vincent Kelly (left) plays Mark Antony, with Sydney Germaine as Octavius, in the Writers Theatre production of "Julius Caesar." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Thomas Vincent Kelly (left) plays Mark Antony, with Sydney Germaine as Octavius, in the Writers Theatre production of “Julius Caesar.” | Michael Brosilow

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