With taut, focused direction by Beki Baker and what is arguably the finest cast of actors to be assembled on a Nashville stage in recent memory, Nashville Shakespeare Festival heats winter up to a fever pitch with its remarkable production of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's timeless-and very timely-tragedy rife with unbridled ambition, conspiratorial plotting, revenge and deception.
Starring legendary NFL running back Eddie George, late of the Tennessee Titans, in the title role-we can happily report that the imposing George makes an impressive Shakespearean debut, his regal bearing is perfectly suited to the Roman dictator and his confident performance is nothing short of awe-inspiring-the production features a startlingly deep, and equally awesome, bench of players giving the leading man ample support.
When you open the show's playbill and read the names Brian Webb Russell, David Compton, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, Jon Royal, Denice Hicks, Robyn Berg, Will Sevier, et al, you are assured of a finely acted dramatic tragedy; add to that list the names of such fine younger actors as Matthew Raich, Caleb Pritchett, Daniel Hackman, Elizabeth Walsh and Maya Abram (her performance is stunning, particularly considering that she is a high school senior; prediction: she will go far) and the presence of the beautiful Tamira A. Henry as Caesar's adoring wife Calpurnia, you are guaranteed a memorable night of theater, one in which you are plunged headlong into the conspiracy playing out before you and which will, most certainly, transform and transport you to ancient Rome while underscoring the political intrigue that permeates our own 21st century.
The play's timeliness becomes all the more apparent as the action unfolds when a cadre of Roman politicians first meet to foment rebellion and to plot the assassination of the emperor Julius Caesar, who is viewed by most as a magnanimous rule, but feared by many to be an iron-fisted despot (sound familiar, students of the contemporary world political milieu?). As the assassins' plans develop and is set into motion, the power of Beki Baker's direction becomes more apparent: She moves the play's action along at a fluid pace, each scene dovetailing seamlessly into the next, Shakespeare's Elizabethan language interpreted with fiery grace and amazing skill by her talented band of actors. As a result, what ensues is eminently easy to follow, making NSF's Julius Caesar the perfect entre for the uninitiated-or intimidated- into the complete canon of the Bard's works.
NSF's adaptation of Julius Caesar, though uncredited (Scott Baker, the husband of the director, is the production's dramaturg) is beautifully edited, streamlining the story to an accessible two hours of impressive storytelling. With that trimming and excising, what remains is a thoroughly involving tale of the political machinations of Caesar's rivals and the personal travails of the men who bring down the dictator-in addition to his loyal supporters, most notably Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, his adopted son-and the civil war which quickly follows the actions that transpire on the fateful "Ides of March."
The story is clearly told and remarkably developed (perhaps in spite of the editing, although because of it) and is so compellingly acted that you cannot help but be moved by the performances onstage, transfixed by the power of an actor (or actors) at the height of their game.
The aforementioned George and Henry make for an impressive pair, the leaders of a powerful, burgeoning political dynasty; each gives a richly nuanced performance that seems free from stagey artifice and their interactions are deeply felt and relevant.
Russell gives an extraordinary reading of Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all," displaying the character's inner turmoil to perfection, showing us every dimension of his superb talents and reiterating Brutus' conflicting emotions and motivations. Clearly, Shakespeare could have easily titled his work The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, since he is the central figure in the play (Caesar, in reality, is more of a featured player in the work, although it is his life and death that provide the basis for the piece and he is clearly the "biggest name" among the lot), and Russell gives him his due.