Masters of their fates: Julius Caesar at American Shakespeare Center

Sarah Fallon as Caius Cassius and René Thornton, Jr. as Brutus in Julius Caesar. Photo: Pat Jarrett. Sarah Fallon as Caius Cassius and René Thornton, Jr. as Brutus in Julius Caesar. Photo: Pat Jarrett.

When I moved to this area from New York City, the first thing I wanted to do was go see a show at the American Shakespeare Center. From the moment I learned of it, I was enamored of the dream it promised: a self-sustaining center of Shakespearean, Elizabethan, and early Modern drama in the heart of the Shenandoah, on a stage designed to the specs of the hallowed old Blackfriars Playhouse in London. Being an avid Shakespeare nerd while also despising big city life and seeking out mountainous terrain often set me at odds. The idea that great Shakespeare was happening in the Shenandoah Valley was enough to make me rethink the concept of a sentient universe. Part of me just couldn’t believe such a thing existed, and maybe I was protecting the fragile dream by not going, but otherwise I have little excuse as to why it’s been a year and a half and I’ve just seen my first show. I can happily report that the dream is not only alive, the reality has so o’erleaped the fragile dream that I’m ashamed I ever doubted it.

The play was Julius Caesar, my second favorite behind Richard III, so I was, as always, guarded. I’ve seen Caesar about a dozen times by this point and the range of quality is wide. It’s a tough play to not ruin; it’s so good on its own but it makes you want to make it into something more than it needs to be. Avid tactitioners that they are, ASC flanked that little hang up by approaching it with traditional Elizabethan rehearsal practices. I’m talking about three days rehearsal, no directors, no designers, no set, lights up, costume stock, boom: opening night. This is how it was done when Shakespeare was doing it and it could not have worked better. If you have smart actors who make bold choices, who know their parts, and are unflinching in the objectivity of their self-analysis and are freely constructive with criticism and notes for each other…who needs a director?  Who needs complicated, moody lighting or an immersive set?

The pre-show music was great, and featured all the actors in the show. There was no illusory fourth wall; all the house lights were up and the actors roamed about. I won’t give too much away, but the transition into the first act of the play was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. Audience interaction was highly encouraged in a way that genuinely interacted with the show without putting an unwanted spotlight on anyone. The show flew by through the use of cuts that were, by and large, well informed (though they did cut my absolute favorite Brutus line).

The cast was a tight ensemble. Of particular note was Benjamin Curns’ Caesar. Until now, every single Caesar I’ve ever seen  has annoyed me. Maybe it’s because he’s always played as a supporting part in a play with his name in the title. This was not the case with Curns, whose Caesar was confident but not overblown, striding and hubristic, but likeable in the same vein. He was a leader and he led the show, without any self-awareness of his fate or the duration of his time in the play. And more than that, Curns himself is clearly one of those kinds of people who just knows what to do onstage, which goes a long way.

Brutus is my favorite character in Caesar and René Thornton, Jr. played him capably. His looming height and gravitas lent him authority, and he had the vocal delivery of a polished statesman. His choices were smart and his objectives were nimbly pursued. I would have liked to have seen a bigger transition from beginning to end, from the man who loved Caesar but loved Rome more, to the warlord who publicly brushes aside news of his wife’s death. Sarah Fallon’s Cassius was sharp and motivated, her delivery was focused, and she fit Caesar’s remark of her having a lean and hungry look. I was  greatly impressed by Gregory Jon Phelps’ Marc Antony. His character had the most engaging transition, from the Elizabethan equivalent of a frat guy to the deftly manipulative orator and conquering emperor at the end.

All told, this is great theater. It’s the kind that energizes you, makes you want to go out and do something inspired. The same reason we go home and pretend to be Batman after seeing a Batman movie.  For nothing more than the giddy appeal of witnessing something being done right, this show is worth seeing.

Julius Caesar/Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center through April 4

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