Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra : together at the Harman

Photo courtesy of Me

What can I tell you about The Shakespeare Theater Company‘s productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra? You don’t come here for Shakespeare criticism and I’m not up to the challenge. There’s some things to say about the players on stage – Suzanne Bertish is spot-on, Andrew Long, Aubrey K. Deeker, Dan Kremer and all the other locals are good as well – but so what? We know STC isn’t going to put any stinkers up on stage and truth be told, if you’re inclined to go see either of these plays you’re probably not going to see any one person. These are not the avenues to catch a tour de force blow-the-doors-off piece of acting – the roles don’t lend themselves to it and they’re both huge ensembles – I stopped counting during the Julius Caesar curtain call when I got to the thirtieth performer.

Photo courtesy of MeSo then, what can I tell you? Odds are good you read one or both of these in your high school careers, and they haven’t changed. Nor has STC altered their placement in time or location: these are the Roman plays as they were written; no movement to World War I or modern day New York City. Both have the same problem for us as modern audiences as they did for us then – it’s hard to find someone to root for in Julius Caesar, as full of connivers and killers as it is, or Antony and Cleopatra, with person after person making foolish and impulsive decisions.

Photo courtesy of Me

You either are or are not the kind of person interested in seeing one of these plays, so what I say won’t sway you on the merits of the text. What I can tell you is that if you’re inclined to go, you’re going to be satisfied. If you’re not inclined, there’s not going to be something new or unusual there to overcome your reluctance. Somewhere in the world someone is going to stage Julius Caesar in a way to draw the parallel to American preemptive Middle-Eastern intervention, with Brutus and most of his cohorts being prodded into making a well-meaning decision by an arrogant and petty Cassius who’s been spending too much time on the New American Century website. Once they go down that bloody road they’ll discover that the aftermath isn’t as easy and painless as they expected and not everyone is convinced that their reasons were sound or sufficient.

Photo courtesy of Me

This is not that production of Julius Caesar.

Neither is this Antony and Cleopatra evocative of a modern married government leader who thinks with parts south of the border and makes decisions that endanger his position to the point where he finds himself at odds with his peers and fighting to hold on to his power.

What these are, instead, are faithful classic productions set in the Harman’s lovely spaces with fairly minimal but highly effective staging. Caesar goes little beyond tapestries and hangings, where Antony and Cleopatra add some tables and pieces that more evoke a ship than represent it. The costuming is stunning and the music near perfect. There’s only two quibbles I’d make, both with the production of Julius Caesar, but they’re minor.

Photo courtesy of Me

The boxes at the back of the Harman’s stage are a nice location for semi-hidden participants like percussionist Martin Desjardins normally, but during parts where performers are on the upper level he’s a little too prominent. If you’re not an actor I don’t feel like I should be able to discern your facial expressions during the production – it’s distracting. More bothersome but come and gone more rapidly is the bit of foolishness that someone felt they needed to pop into the scene where Brutus and Cassius face off across the battlefield from Octavius and Antony. While Antony is supposed to be a bit cavalier and light-hearted, it’s jarring to see him good around while eating and apple while Brutus and Cassius determine if they’re going to enter into a bloody battle. Having him wordlessly and goofilly offer the man who they’ve just determined to fight a bite before walking back to his own camp is just grating, particularly so short a time after we’ve seen him deliver an impassioned speech about his friend who was murdered by the very person he’s trying to share his snack with.

These are little things, however, and won’t ruin your experience if it’s one you want to have.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra
Sidney Harman Hall 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004
through July 6th, 2008.

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