After Hamlet, Julius Caesar is among my two or three favorite Shakespeare plays; yet I have seen it on stage only twice. The second time was the current production directed by Robert Richmond at the Folger Library. In this production, actors often are clothed in robes and hoods, the lighting is mostly dim, there is plenty of smoke, and the music by Eric Shimelonis is low and mysterious. This well-done gothic atmosphere is fitting for a world of conspiracy, misjudgements, and moral ambiguities.
Michael Sharon’s Caesar is arrogant, surely a legitimate interpretation of the role, but it is done in a one-dimensional way which misses the chance to provide greater depth to the character. I was also a little disappointed in Shirine Babb’s depiction of Brutus’ wife, Portia, whom I think of as more gentle than here portrayed. Yes, Miss Babb’s interpretation is a legitimate one, but I think it weakens somewhat the poignancy surrounding Portia.
A bigger (though not fatal) weakness of the production is that when someone is killed, a robed and hooded actress (Nafeesa Monroe, who also plays the soothsayer) tosses red slips of paper which I think are supposed to be rose petals which in turn symbolize blood. I think that this is an idea that may seem good in theory but in actuality comes across as precious and rapidly becomes tiresome.
On the other hand, the portrayals of the two central figures are excellent. Anthony Cochrane’s Brutus is noble, certainly, but also simply a decent and patriotic man. Louis Butelli’s Cassius is complex, as he should be. Cassius is cleverer than Brutus, both politically,in recognizing the danger of Mark Anthony, and militarily, in recommending their armies await in the highlands rather than pressing an attack at Phillipi. Yet despite this superiority of judgement, he is deferential toward Brutus. Mr. Butelli captures well this double aspect of the character of Cassius.
All in all, this is a fine production of a thought-provoking play. It runs through December 7 at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.