The final production of the Actors' Shakespeare Project's inaugural season, "Julius Caesar" starts off like a final rehearsal, with actor's rehearsing fight moves, conversations about their parts, a brief rendition of "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." and trying on costume accessories. This backstage chaos segues imperceptibly into the opening comic scene between the tribunes, Flavius & Marullus, and the workingmen. The two authority figures are played by Bobbie Steinbach, seen last fall in ASP's "Richard III" as the Queen Mother, and Marya Lowry who played Buckingham in the same production. Owen Doyle, bearing a slight resemblance to the Bard, plays the Cobbler, bad jokes and all. Wearing an Elizabethan collar he's more impressive in the next scene as the Soothsayer. It becomes clear that this will be a barebones production of the Roman Play, long a part of the American Theatre, with new takes on its traditions.
The company has dismantled the temporary thrust added to the small stage in historic Durrell Hall and arranged seating in a wide arc under the horseshoe balcony with the back rows raised. The main acting area is a rug laid in the center of the floor with platforms on either side leading up to the small permanent stage. A table with stools sits in front of the main aisle until the final battle. Director Robert Scanlan, a literary manager from the Brustein years of the ART and former president of Cambridge's fabled Poets' Theatre, spreads the action across the space using aisles as the main entrances, saving the stage mostly for Caesar, played by Greg Steres who appeared as Edw. IV and Tyrell last fall. Calpurnia, played by Jennie Israel who was Elizabeth, and IRNE winner Dorian Christian Baucum, new to ASP with training from Shakespeare & Co playing Antony are established as well, while the two main characters converse close to the audience. Brutus is played by Robert Walsh, who directed ASP's previous show, "Measure for Measure". Walsh, an experienced N.E. Shakespearean, survived playing MacDuff opposite Jay O. Sanders' scottish king on the Common two summers ago. Among his accomplishments he's a qualified fight director, though Ted Hewlett from the Emerson College Faculty is the fight choreographer for this show. Cassius is done by Benjamin Evett, the founder of ASP, a former ART company member, who directed the first show in the fall. He survived doing Banquo in the previously mentioned CSC production. Both these principal players give straight forward interpretations of their roles.
As the conspiracy evolves, Steinbach joins them as Casca, giving a comic bent to that bluff old man. David Evett, the senior member of the company, then runs into the old hothead as the storm begins, as Cicero, the first of several such cameos. The rest of the conspirators who meet at Brutus's that night are Bill Barclay, Tony Berg, and Andrew Winson, with Israel and Lowry standing in uncredited. Khalil Fleming, fresh from playing Jack at Wheelock Family Theatre, gets to stay up way past his bedtime as Lucius, Brutus' young servant. Lowry appears next in her main role as tough-minded Portia, establishing her Stoic credentials. The only member of the company who doesn't appear except in crowd scenes until just before the break is Gus Kelley, who plays Octavius Caesar.. He was last seen at Boston Playwrights' in a lead for the premiere of Ginger Lazarus' "Matter Familias" and works regularly with Shakespeare Now! touring schools.
Scanlan stages the assassination in slowmotion with Hewlett's help, which takes a bit too long. There's too much choreographic plot before Brutus run the suspected tyrant through, though it does make an impression. Evett Sr. as Publius stands in for the rest of the Senate. Baucum then has a chance to establish Antony's scheming nature and avoids becoming the conspirator's second victim. After being helped up and off, Steres then appears downstage sitting at the table applying streaky whiteface while Brutus makes the conspirators' case to the crowd.. He then walks to the stage left proscenium balancing the bust of Caesar which has stood stage right since the opening to listen to Marc Antony. The ghost of Caesar appears right away in this production; there is no body onstage. Judicious cuts make the mutiny scene which follows build quite rapidly. After the crowd rushes off, Antony makes his brief comment about "Mischief" and Octavius appears ready for battle. It's intermission; Cinna the poet escapes being done in by the mob.
There are similar judicious cuts in Acts IV and V, attempting to sort out the new names, which every Elizabethan schoolboy could have known. The bloody rule of the Triumvirs is established, with Evett as ineffectual Lepidus. Brutus and Cassius, the surviving conspirators, quarrel in the field surrounded by the armies they've raised to counteract the Triumvirs, who've slaughtered much of the Senate in Rome, not merely the other six assassins. The confrontation in Brutus' tent, essentially the agon of the second half of the play, confirms both actors' mastery of Shakespeare's verse.The most of the cast becomes Brutus' faction with Lowry in the key role of Messala, a general. Israel appears as Cassius's servant, the Greek Pindarus. Walsh handles the news of Portia's suicide by swallowing coals with Stoic calm, an emotion perhaps even harder to fathom these days. Steres reappears as Caesar's ghost, but after the first haunting of Brutus is slightly distracting as he halting moves across the back of the stage. Static appearances at various locations would be a better premonition of his surprising role in the finale.
All in all, an effective rendition and often moving of this classic by an company which continues to grow, once again letting the Bard speak for himself. The solid performances do the cast credit without producing any star turns. The actors build on their past performances in other more concept-driven productions by getting back to basics. The configuration of the audience under the balcony on rises improves the acoustics of the hall. Lighting ace John R. Malinowski solves the problems of this antique space as he has done elsewhere, from the Tremont Temple to the Boston Common. Under Hewlett's supervision, experienced members of the troupe manage to wield some fairly lethal cutlery with considerable conviction.
ASP has scheduled three more plays next season, based on this year's success. They're doing "King Lear" next fall, "Twelfth Night" in the winter, and "All's Well That Ends Well" in the spring. No casting or venues have been announced, though interesting speculations abound. The current renaissance in theatre in Boston finally includes a company which can don the mantle of the old Boston Shakespeare troupe, and outdo that fabled ensemble.