Julius Caesar rises and falls Sunday at Shakepeare & Company

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LENOX — Across the centuries, Shakespeare's plays gain deeper new meanings when seen through a contemporary lens. On Sunday afternoon, the dramatic rise and demise of Roman leader Julius Caesar is at play with a one-off staged reading at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse, directed by company co-founder Tina Packer.

Distinguished classical actor John Douglas Thompson is Brutus and Shakespeare & Company scion Finn Wittrock is Mark Antony alongside artistic director Allyn Burrows and company stalwarts Nigel Gore, MaConnia Chesser, Cloteal L. Horne, Kristin Wold, Jordan Mann and Dara Brown.

Thompson and Wittrock have long histories with Shakespeare & Company.

Thompson has delivered memorable performances in Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "Othello"; classics like "Mother Courage and Her Children"; and new plays "Red Velvet" and "Satchmo at the Waldorf."

In 2005, he debuted on Broadway in "Julius Caesar" as Flavius opposite Denzel Washington, and played Casius in Shakespeare in the Park's controversial 2017 production.

Thompson spoke from London, on a break from filming international spy thriller "355," his second film this summer.

"Brutus is a noble, righteous man who is conflicted. He feels something must be done and agonizes over what that should be, [wanting] to do the right thing for the people of Rome."

He sees his task ahead as "making a noble sacrifice" — and pays for his actions.

"Ultimately the enterprise fails. Shakespeare is saying there are ways to change the system, and violence is not one of them."

The test of any great play is how it applies to now, he said.

"This seems the most potent time where this play has such meaning. It allows you to think about politics in a different way."

The reading is "full of wonderful actors," Thompson noted. "I remember watching Finn as a boy, it's amazing what he has accomplished. I'm excited to work with him finally."

As for being directed again by Packer, "she's a genius, quite frankly, her understanding of Shakespeare is profound. I've learned a lot from her."

Two decades ago, at around age 30, British-born Thompson took Shakespeare & Company's intensive training program to immerse himself in the Bard.

"It liberated me, Shakespeare & Comany built that bridge so I could have the career I wanted in classical theater."

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Maturity brings a different level of understanding, he observed. "You keep looking for new things, new ways to express yourself."

The proud new father of six-month old Jude, Wittrock, 34, spoke from his Los Angeles home during a welcome nap break.

Wittrock grew up with a tribe of Shakespeare & Company children at The Mount, performing Shakespeare scenes with great enthusiasm. Now busy with film and television projects, he last visited Lenox to play Hamlet in a 2016 reading.

Burrows, his old friend, — "I've known him since I was born," Wittrock quipped — invited him to play Mark Antony, which fortunately coincided with East Coast filming and Toronto Film Festival screenings.

This is Wittrock's "Julius Caesar" debut.

"I've always liked the play, there's so much moral ambiguity in it. I was surprised how much empathy Brutus gets," he said. "He has been around the block and has been a steady force for years in the empire. Mark Antony is more of a libertine, enjoying the fancier things of life."

Wittrock has known Thompson "since I was a wee one. I've admired his work since I was a kid, he is captivating onstage."

He recalls Packer directing him at age 12, playing Prince of York in "Richard III."

"After a few hours with her, I'm sure I'll have a whole new perspective on 'Julius Caesar,'" he said.

Shakespeare & Company readings can be very physical. For 'Hamlet' we choreographed a sword fight, and were pretty much just steps away from a real show."

With so little rehearsal time, "you use the adrenaline of being in front of an audience to guide you, and let the text work its magic."

While Wittrock has never trained with Shakespeare & Company, he would join actors in their pre-show warmups.

"I learned a lot of their work by osmosis over the years. And my dad [actor Peter Wittrock, Sr., a former member of Shakespeare & Company] has given me tips.

"Having a training ground with the classics is a great way for a young actor to expand the spectrum of what is possible. You stretch so much outside of your comfort zone.

"I'm aware of a difference in my acting now that I'm a dad," he said. "It changes your perspective, reawakens your empathetic muscle. The future of the world becomes important in a different way."


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