The Roman political wranglings of two millennia ago may still be relevant today, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the Utah Shakespearean Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”
Directed by Jim O’Connor, this cold, impersonal show benefits from a few sharp performances and well-played scenes, but otherwise has little to offer to anyone not already intimately familiar with the script.
Joe Cronin plays the title role with fine authoritative pompousness, angrily rejecting his enemies and slapping his friends on the back with the down-to-earth jocularity that makes for a successful leader. It is easy to see why the Romans loved him, and why Cassius (Jeff Swarthout) and others were jealous of him.
It is Brutus (Donald Save Mackay) who is troublesome. He agrees to murder Caesar not because of envy, like the others, but because he truly believes Caesar is dangerous to the welfare of Rome. However, Mackay’s portrayal of him in the first several scenes differs from Cassius’ attitude only in degree. His tone of voice and body language do not match the noble words he speaks.
After intermission, Mackay emerges as one of the better performers, as Brutus’ feelings become more clear and his actions more respectable. Jeff Swarthout shares a good scene with him near the end, as Cassius and Brutus fight and reconcile over what they’ve done.
Also worthy of mention is Todd Denning as Marc Antony, Caesar’s supporter. A key moment in the play is Caesar’s funeral, where Antony is permitted to speak, but only on the condition he not bad-mouth the conspirators. Through some masterful language — and some genuinely effective acting by Denning — he complies with this, yet still gets the crowd to turn against the people who murdered Caesar. The swiftness with which the Romans turn from placated fools to bloodthirsty mob is silly (we’ll have to blame Shakespeare for that one), but it’s played by Denning and the ensemble with more suspense and cleverness than is to be found in the rest of the show.
Though the actors no doubt understand what they’re saying, little effort is made to make the language accessible to the audience, most of whom will not have done a great deal of research before entering the theater. The lack of passion in the first half means that the murder of Caesar — which takes place onstage and with plenty of blood — appears monstrously overwrought. If there had been any life in the proceedings to that point, the assassination would have been chilling. But when the land is drought-stricken, a mild fall of rain feels like a monsoon.
During the performance we attended, an elderly man and his wife got up to leave. Before they could make it out, though, the man collapsed on the ground. They halted the play until the paramedics could come haul him off. He apparently had suffered from heat exhaustion, and nothing more serious than that. We wondered later if the incident had derailed the rest of the play, until we remembered that the show had been dull even before that.