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A CurtainUp Review
Julius Caesar

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is...

---Mark Antony, Act III, scene 2

Mary Birdsong and Christopher Yates
M. Birdsong and C. Yates
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Although they don't seem to be making a big deal of it, this year represents the tenth anniversary of Moonwork Theater Company, as well as my fifth year of reviewing their more-or-less annual forays into Shakespeare. It's therefore fitting, perhaps, that the most appealing aspects of this production draw on many of the same notions that turned me on to this company in the first instance, in its modern multimedia retelling of Richard III, linked below. It is also buttressed by the exceptional infusion of Andrew Sherman's music and the sort of heightened visual stimulation that has become an increasingly important part of Moonwork's stamp on Shakespeare.

Julius Caesar is a natural for "Moonworking". Finding the contemporary resonances in the play is hardly unique; Moonwork has taken them to their logical extension: telling the story in the context of the present day American presidency in which television news variously illuminates, occludes and rethinks everything that happens, pretty much as it happens.

So we have live feeds, videotaped reports from the field, suavely produced political advertisements that package leaders in patriotic hogwash and the regular intrusion of talking heads who tell us what we are supposed to think. (In a particularly inspired bit of connectivity, the latter is rendered via The Artemidorus Group, in which the Sophist of Cnidos (James Wolfe) has become John McLaughlin.) Much of this comes to us by way of video projected onto screens on both sides of the stage. (Director of Video Photography Matthew Ranson, deserves credit for the highly professional, and realistic, quality.) Reflecting a different emblem of the present tense, The Soothsayer (Dan Snow) is a homeless man whose nonsense appears well grounded, and who seems to have an inordinate amount of power.

The text for this staging has been craftily (if at times sketchily) adapted by Director Gregory Wolfe and Gregory J. Sherman. The speech and demeanor of the actors has been updated to reflect its modern American sense, sometimes more successfully integrating the Elizabethan prose than at others, though generally with reasonable success.

Bill Gorman's Caesar is effective: a slightly crusty politician, surrounded by all manner of handlers and secret service types, and reappearing as a toga-clad ghost. But this play's title character functions as little more than exposition: the telling of the real story here is left to Brutus (Christopher Yates) and Mark Antony (Christopher Haas). Mr. Yates is especially strong, unveiling the complex moral quagmire of this "noblest Roman of them all". Mr. Haas, unfortunately, cannot match his foe, and is the production's greatest disappointment. Every school child knows Antony's famous funeral speech, and quickly comes to understand its irony. Yet in the rendition here, when Mr. Yates' Antony speaks the line quoted above, we take him at his word.

The conspirators Casca (Paula Stevens), Cassius (Mason Pettit) and Metellus Cimber (Ax Norman) are all well presented; the pivotal scene between Brutus and Cassius alone in the second scene of the first act is perhaps the play's best. The wives, Sarah Knowlton as Calpurnia and Mary Birdsong as Portia, are also quite fine, and in a special treat, Ms. Birdsong lives up to her name, performing a hauntingly lovely post-mortem song to her husband.

There are pleasures of another sort in the staging of the play's battle scenes. Jena Necrason's choreography, Ian Marshall's fight choreography, Andrew Sherman's sound design, David Sherman's lighting and Oana Botez-Ban's costumes (the soldiers appear in menacing-looking riot gear) combine to make a memorable impression. This highlights the collaborative nature of the creative team Director Wolfe has assembled, which has done notable work throughout this play.

Moonwork's projects are labors of love. Although, on the one hand, they make us wish for more than the show a year we get to see, they also make us appreciate the value of the extensive developmental process that underpins their work, and which is rare in New York theater.

Moonwork's Richard III

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Wolfe
with Mary Birdsong, Gabriel Edelman, Jay Gaussoin, Gail Giovaniello, Tatiana Gomberg, Bill Gorman, Christopher Haas, Kelly Kinsella, Sarah Knowlton, Ax Norman, Kim Patton, Mason Pettit, John Roque, Dan Snow, Justin Steeve, Paula Stevens and Christopher Yates (as well as a cast of 40+ on video)
Set Design: Lowell Pettit
Lighting Design: David Sherman
Costume Design: Oana Botez-Ban
Director of Video Photography: Matthew Ranson
Composer and Sound Design: Andrew Sherman
Choreography: Jena Necrason
Fight Choreography: Ian Marshall
A production of Moonwork Theater Company Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street (Avs. A/B)
Telephone: (212) 868-4444
THURS - SUN @8, SUN @3; $19
Opening November 9, 2003, closing November 23, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 11/5/03 performance

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