by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
The Great Bard, William Shakespeare, is known by many as one of the greatest playwrights in world history. He has proven himself time and time again with comedies, tragedies, histories, poetry and prose but, even though his language is technically (early) modern English, it can be a tough pill for modern audiences to swallow. It takes a brave troupe to tackle any work of Shakespeare and present it to a present day audience but The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF) does just that and does it successfully. BSF’s latest offering, Julius Caesar, directed by Chris Cotterman with Assistant Director and Stage Manager Phil Vannoorbeeck, Costume Design by April Forrer, Music Direction by Alice Stanley and Josh Thomas, and Fight Choreography by Tegan Williams manages to keep a modern audience entertained yet keep the authenticity of the play in tack making for a very pleasant midsummer’s evening.
This production is performed on The Meadow at Johns Hopkins Evergreen Museum & Library and is an absolutely perfect setting for this type of production. There are no sets whatsoever – just a square wooden stage at the edge of a wood and the beautiful backdrop of the trees and the open sky gives a very authentic, natural feeling. The sounds of nature, particularly the crickets and cicadas, though noticeable at first, blended into the production giving an almost soothing soundtrack to the production.
It’s apparent BSF loves music and seems to include it every chance it gets. Just as in original productions of Shakespeare plays over 400 years ago where theatres had a special musician’s gallery above the stage or musicians directly on the stage, BSF follows with the latter. The audience is treated to a few tunes before the performance, during intermission, and a closing number. The songs are mostly modern with minimal instrumental accompaniment including Josh Thomas on the acoustic guitar and cast members playing the cajón (box drum). The tunes chosen by Music Directors Alice Stanley and Josh Thomas are quite appropriate and are well performed by the multi-talented cast members and might have you clapping in time or tapping your foot.
Cotterman’s blocking is very good, being in the thrust and sans set. The audience is encouraged to sit on all three sides of the stage and the blocking is very fluid, keeping the actors moving. No microphones are used in this production so, an actor with his or her back to the audience is hard to hear and there are quite a few times, depending on where you are sitting, you will be presented with the back of an actor, but not for too long, so not much is missed in the dialogue and most, not all, of the actors are on point with their projection. I have to reiterate… there are absolutely no sets. None. Zilch! However, this does not, in any way, take away from the production because it is actor driven and the hard-working, very talented actors still kept my attention despite the blank stage.
Worth mentioning is the combat on the stage in this production. Resident Fight Choreographer and BSF company member Tegan Williams does a magnificent job getting this cast moving like a well-oiled machine during the “fight” scenes with thought-out choreography that does not take away from the performance, but adds to it as a whole. The demise of Julius Caesar is a highlight of this choreography, as well as the battles between Marc Antony supporters and Marcus Brutus supports.
Notably, Cotterman decides to set the story in Colonial America rather than the traditional ancient Rome because, according to his director’s note, he wanted “No togas.” It’s an interesting choice and it does work though there are only slight similarities between Revolutionary America and the story of Julius Caesar, namely the over-throw of a tyrant, or, in Caesar’s case, a perceived tyrant. This change of setting is accomplished using costumes and Costume Designer April Forrer does a superb job dressing her actors in well though-out, appropriate period costumes definitely setting the story in the Colonial era. Though the wardrobe was fantastic and the setting was appropriate, I have to ask if it was entirely necessary to take this story out of ancient Rome. The script was, of course, edited, but not updated so, really, it could have taken place anywhere. Cotterman states in his director’s note (in so many words) that this is a kind of “American Julius Caesar” and he chose to set the story in Colonial times because the era would be familiar but a distant past to his audience just as the setting in the original Julius Caesar, produced in Shakespeare’s time, would be familiar but distant past to that audience. Again, clever idea, but not entirely necessary.
Taking on the titular role of Julius Caesar is Anne Shoemaker who looks very comfortable in the role and has a good command of the dialogue. She also has a good presence on stage but her delivery is softer than I liked. There are many times, especially when she is facing away from the audience, where it is very difficult to hear her dialogue and some of her more important lines are lost. Regardless, she gives her all and gives a very admirable performance.
Shakespeare plays are truly ensemble pieces and every character is an integral part of the story but a few standout performances in this production of Julius Caesar include performances by Utkarsh Rajawat as Caius Cassius, Shannon Ziegler as Marcus Brutus, and Fred Fletcher-Jackson as Mark Antony.
As Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand-man, Fred Fletcher-Jackson commands the stage and is very comfortable with his movements and he gives a very natural performance. In the few parts where his character has to yell to show rage or agony, I lose the character a bit, but overall, his performance is spot on.
Shannon Ziegler as Marcus Brutus gave a brilliant performance and she really seemed to understand her character and the inner conflict he was having. She had a great command of the stage and a strong presence and looked very comfortable and natural having a purpose with every move. Her delivery of the lines is careful and flawless, especially in her monologues.
The highlight of this production is Utkarsh Rajawat as Caius Cassius. His performance was near perfect with a strong presence and command of the stage. Even though it’s Early modern English, he didn’t falter once on the dialogue and, because he his delivery was so natural, there were times I forgot he was reading from a script. He is a joy to watch in this role because instead of just saying the lines and going through the motions, I could see Rajawat took the time to study and understand what his character was saying and it shone through in his on point performance.
Final thought… Julius Caesar is a well-produced show with a very talented, dedicated cast. If you are familiar with Shakespeare, you will not be disappointed and if you are a Shakespeare novice, you will still be able to follow this timeless story of intrigue, conspiracy, and betrayal. Beware the ides of March, but go see this production of Julius Caesar.
This is what I thought of this production of Julius Caesar.… what do you think?
Julius Caesar will play through August 21, Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm at The Meadow at Johns Hopkins Evergreen Museum & Library (4545 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD) or The Great Hall Theater at St. Mary’s Community Center (3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD). For tickets, call 410-921-9455 or purchase them online.