Julius Caesar features imagination, intelligence and brio

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JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare (Groundling Theatre Company/Crow’s Theatre). At Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw). Runs to February 2. $30-$55. 647-341-7390, crowstheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN


Shakespeare’s bloody study of populist hubris, conspiring elites and civil war is resurrected with imagination, intelligence and brio in this co-production from Groundling Theatre Company and Crow’s Theatre.

Helmed by Crow’s artistic director Chris Abraham, this Julius Caesar is staged in the round, making dynamic use of almost every corner of the Guloien Theatre – and pulling out almost every stop in its mission to bridge classical Rome, Elizabethan England and our current moment of global tumult.  

Returning triumphant from the war against Pompey, Caesar (Jim Mezon) is hailed a hero by the Roman republic, prompting a clutch of senators concerned over Caesar’s expanding powers to launch a murderous coup d’état concocted by Cassius (Moya O’Connell) and ratified by the widely respected Brutus (Stratford veteran Dion Johnstone) – which in turn prompts a campaign of retaliation commandeered by the ever-loyal Marc Antony (Groundling artistic director Graham Abbey). 

The set-up is easy to summarize, yet the circumstances and rationalizations are complex. It’s a testament to this busy, at times bombastic production’s core integrity that one of its most riveting scenes features Brutus in soliloquy, justifying the assassination plan, weighing loyalties to nation and leader, political convictions with personal agendas. Johnstone beautifully delivers this ostensibly private deliberation directly to the surrounding audience, underlining his assertion that it is “for the public good.”  

There are appealing nods to the movies: costume designer Ming Wong’s dark business attire and overcoats and Thomas Ryder Payne’s brooding soundscapes imbue a key early scene with the air of a Hollywood political thriller, while a memorable Soothsayer (Walter Borden), his voice chillingly amplified, seems to have walked out of a David Lynch film.

Yet the show is driven by a distinctly theatrical urgency and immediacy, with Lorenzo Savoini’s long mobile rails of fluorescent light rising and falling, alternating between vertical and horizontal positions and stuttering in moments of gunfire or thunderstorm. The actors, meanwhile, even in the talkiest of scenes, are in almost constant motion, exerting intense physicality – though the choice to replace daggers with pistols inevitably sacrifices a pivotal scene’s gruesome intimacy. 

There are excesses, such as the injection of drone warfare, an ill-timed “sleepy” musical interlude and a few moments of forced angst from Abbey and O’Connell. Yet the potentially contentious non-Shakespeare sequences (by Zack Russell), such as the opening, with its jocular talk radio banter, air horns and mascot heads, and the closing, which takes the term “postmortem” more literally than is typically the case, are highly effective at putting the play’s events in a context at once contemporary and timeless. Both sequences, as it happens, bear subtle echoes of The Assembly, a highlight from Crow’s 18/19 season, which was also more concerned with assessing social phenomena than taking sides. 

Julius Caesar is an infinitely malleable text, always ready for remounting in moments of upheaval, whether they occur in the U.S. or Russia, Chile or Turkey, Indonesia or Iran. So many societies have, at some point, had their Caesar, their Brutus, and the play isn’t designed to render one villainous and the other virtuous.

As Abraham writes in his director’s notes, “Shakespeare is interested in the entire ecosystem.” Or as Cassius herself simply states, “Think of the world.”

@chiminomatic