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Brute Force 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS

In the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's production of Julius Caesar, director Amy Boyce Holtcamp assembled an able cast and elicited nuanced, convincing performances. By setting the tragedy in 1930s America, she both freshened up the play and created some odd contradictions.

  Huey Long-era politicos wearing cool suits and fedoras (by costume designer Cecile Casey Covert), hustle about while paparazzi shoot flash photos. Aside from the Bard's entrancing iambic pentameter, all seems normal — until the Ides of March!

  Long was gunned down in the halls of the state Capitol. These Roman conspirators, however, assassinate the aspiring dictator with daggers they've tucked away in their three-piece suits. The anachronism suggests that human beings killed in the past, kill in the present and will kill in the future. Only the weapons change with time.

  After the murder, the conspirators dip their hands in Caesar's blood. When Marc Antony sees his slain friend, he shakes hands with each of the murderers, and the gesture takes on an ominous tone.

  Although the play is named for Caesar (Ron Gural), the action centers on the conspirators, chiefly Marcus Brutus (John Neisler) and Cassius (Silas Cooper). Do they strike out of envy or are they driven by concern for the republic? Antony (Shad Willingham) thinks their motives are venal — except for Brutus, whom he famously praises as the noblest Roman of them all. Antony offers the eulogy over the fallen Brutus on the fields of Philippi, where he and Octavius defeat the conspirators. The anachronisms run amok in the long, confusing battle scenes, as soldiers in business suits carry weapons ranging from daggers to muskets to Tommy guns.

  Caesar turns on the question of who can rouse the rabble most effectively. The idealistic Brutus expects to sway the masses by claiming Caesar aspires to establish a dictatorship. Antony, whom Brutus foolishly allows to address the crowd, resorts to devious rhetorical tricks to enrage the people against the murderers.

  One of the pleasures of the production was that every word, phrase and sentence was crystal clear. The ensemble as a whole was strong, and there were notable performances by Gural, Neisler, Cooper and Willingham (whose impressive Antony had a touch of the young Ernest Hemingway). Caesar is mostly a man's play, but Emilie Whelan (Portia) and Carmen Torres (Calpurnia) turned in strong performances. Julius Caesar may not be one of the Bard's most seductive plays, but at the Shakespeare Festival, it held the audience spellbound. — Dalt Wonk

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