Julius Caesar. Directed by Jeff Hinkle at The City Theater, Austin, Texas. 28 February, 2015.
Reviewed by Michael Saenger
Austin’s City Theater is a modest but impressive institution, and this Julius Caesar makes a strong case for a relatively traditional style of Shakespearean performance. It is surely a sign of the city’s maturity that such a proverbially classic play can be performed without a cellphone onstage, a reference to Obama, or any other shortcut to relevance. Perhaps the most telling indicator that Austin has outgrown its futon is that the small theater performing this proverbially classic play was sold out.
This production was certainly not lavish—there was no liquid blood onstage, and there were almost no musical or audio effects at all. The small stage was elegantly used, and the bare-bones cast animated a chopped-down version of the play with clarity and power, though at times with a somewhat listless solemnity. The doubling made necessary by such a small cast worked well; given how much the play focuses on loyaltyit was disconcerting to see conspirators return as loyalists, but that aspect of the audience’s experience reinforced the play’s thematic emphasis on the dangerous mutability of Rome.
The program notes indicate that the performance is set in Rome of 1930, but little else indicates this onstage, except for some vaguely fascist decorative set features. Moreover, it’s not clear what such a link would indicate; the production presents Bob Jones as a rather homespun and sensitive Caesar; there’s not a demagogic bone in his body and one cannot find someone who resembles Mussolini less. If anything, the directorial vision seems to emphasize the play’s most “classical” tendencies through cuts. Gone are the vicissitudes of the plebeians, the doubts of Brutus and the protracted humiliation at Philippi. Though much is gone, a textual focus was clearly kept on the play’s concerns with the nature of humanity, tyranny and honor. All well and good, but not fascist in the least.
The three central actors—Bob Jones as Caesar, Vincent Tomasino as Brutus and Dave Yakubik as Cassius, all ably supported the dramatic tension of what inevitably feels like a play haunted by inevitability. Jones (who excels at comic roles) comes off as effete and vain, and his ear for the verse makes him a pleasure to listen to. Tomasino embodies the moral conscience of the play, and one can never really see where he lands in the play’s recurrent debates on the nature of the body politic. Yakubik stands out most strongly both because of his fluid command of the text and because of his consistent emotional fervor for Brutus and Rome. Over and over again, one could see Yakubik ceding his reason to his emotional weaknesses. Caesar perceives him as envious and lean; Yakubik goes far further than envy to animate his passionate portrayal. One wishes that other actors in the play were willing to match that level of commitment. Kelsey Mazak’s Portia was riveting, sensitive and powerful as she swayed Brutus to confess his secrets to her. Unfortunately, her scene was brief, as were those of the similarly intense Soothsayer, Toni Baum.
It may be that radical textual reduction is necessary in order to manage a play like this with a small cast, but in the deletion of functionally extraneous material, a large amount of emotional development is lost, and what is left appears more monumental than human. Nevertheless, this was a serious rendition of a great play, and a welcome complement to Austin’s varied theatrical repertoire.