With superb direction by Helen Borgers and excellent acting, Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) presents this provocative and timely play in which Roman citizens are swayed like sheep by savvy politicians and even an innocent poet dies simply for having the wrong name.
Besides strong acting, authentic costuming (Dana Leach) and staging (headed by Tim Leach) effectively evoke the setting of ancient Rome. The set is designed (by Ericka Bailey) with a marble façade featuring classical columns and squared-off doorframes. Intricate lighting (Hyrum Judkins) evokes not only times of day but also differing moods, and the effect of Caesar’s ghost haunting Brutus is subtle. Swordfights and stabbings (there are plenty of both!), complete with bloody robes, are convincing.
Above all, two of the central players, Drew James as right-minded Brutus, and Jesse Seann Atkinson as the scheming Cassius, ground this production with their persuasive performances.
From the start, Cassius manipulates Brutus, along with a number of other senators, to plot against Caesar (Kevin McGrath), resentful of his ascent to power. Atkinson’s pacing is perfect as the overly proud, smarmy Cassius. (He had similarly played well the dark Angelo in LBSC’s recent production of Measure for Measure.)
James plays Brutus with natural robustness, making believable his character’s desire to act in the best interest of the republic, even if he is conflicted by his ultimate betrayal of Caesar.
The other actors whose characters play pivotal parts in this plot are also unfaltering in their roles. LBSC veterans Sarah Hoeven as Caesar’s prophetic wife Calpurnia and Megan Lennon as the sardonic Casca bring professional acuity to their parts. Similarly, Alexandra Hensley as Brutus’s passionate wife Portia and Jess Paxton as strategizing senator Decius Brutus are thoroughly engaging in their roles.
The entire cast of 15 carry their characters with enthusiasm, many playing multiple parts, such as servants and soldiers, or forming the crowd of citizens who are so easily fooled.
We may be reminded of ourselves when we hear this crowd, first as they are seduced by Caesar’s false modesty before he accepts the crown, then as they are won over by Brutus’s honesty after Caesar’s slaying, and finally as the crowd is twisted toward vengeful violence by skilled orator Marc Anthony (Paul Kim). The people are thus portrayed as pawns of imperious senators who all seem to have gone to school together.
The first half of the play, in which the plot against Caesar escalates, coheres better than the second, when two factions war against each other in a power vacuum. Rather than senators operating together toward a common goal, the second half structure is more fractured to the point where every man decides for himself his own fate in the face of loss.
If we see ourselves somewhere in this tragic scheme, it may be because history often repeats itself, especially when power and pride are at stake. This production of Julius Caesar is thus not only great entertainment due to the laudable efforts of its energetic cast and crew, but its story may give us pause to evaluate our own roles as citizens in the political arena of here and now.
Julius Caesar continues at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through June 17, with shows Fridays and Saturday at 8pm (except June 2) and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $12.50 to $22.50. For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.