'Julius Caesar': Shakespeare strips down

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LENOX -- Portia, pregnant and restless in the early morning, wakes to hear her husband walking in the dark. She reaches out to him. This has happened before. Drawing him to her she says against his shoulder, "You have some sick offense within your mind."

Tell me what's wrong.

This is the moment when he begins to lie to her. What's wrong is a political plot that will risk his closest friends, her life and their world.

Moments later, Kristen Wold, who plays Portia, Brutus' wife, has become Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, staring him in the eye and telling him not to leave the house.

Seven people play more than 40 roles in a Bare Bard performance of "Julius Caesar" at Shakespeare & Company.

"What I love about Caesar is that he's walking, bubbling testosterone," said Nigel Gore, who plays him. "He's more powerful than anyone I've played. Richard III is all charisma, MacBeth has a dark, subterranean self, but Caesar is just muscle -- ego, psychic, mental and physical muscle. This is how the president must feel on a good day."

In the first half of the play, all seven actors share the stage all the time. They feel part of the action and the story, they agreed, more than when they have learned one part in a large production, having to leave the scene and re-enter. Here they have to hold the whole play.

The action comes viscerally close to the audience.

"We shout at you, we die near you, we jump out at you," said Eric Tucker, who plays Brutus, Caesar's friend and eventual enemy. "The energy of the performance isn't broken. A character doesn't die off when you're in the dressing room -- there's an energy we share through the whole performance. It's exhausting, but a great kind of exhausting."

"You're in touch with everything going on," agreed Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, who plays Casca, a cynical senator. "Your energies are pushing and pulling on the city."

In the second half, as war comes, the action becomes more fragmented, said director Tina Packer. Actors leave the scene, "the spirit of Rome begins to disappear, and chaos takes over."

The chaos centers on a group of men who control a city and an empire and a continent.

These men went to school together, Borthwick-Leslie said: "They know each other intimately well."

Between them, political violence becomes personal. Political enemies may be lifelong friends. And tensions between them can become civil war.

Borthwick-Leslie sees his Casca as sophisticated and jaded. The people around him have a sense of agency, he said, a certainty that they can make things happen by will. Casca has let go of that. He is angry, he feels caught out, and he wants to be on the winning side, like a U.S. senator swapping positions to court voters.

As Caesar becomes more ambitious, a group of Rome's most influential men set themselves against him, for good reasons or bad.

"It's all done in the name of honor," Tucker said, "and what is that for a modern person, something you would die for? Not manic depression, the end of the rope, but something else, a purpose."

"What I like about Brutus," he said, "is that deep down, he's a good person. He wants to do the right thing for his wife, his friends, even Caesar."

But polarizing political tension at the top will destabilize the whole of the Roman empire, and through it all of Europe.

As they rehearse, the actors hear echoes between the last days of the Roman Republic and the last decades in U.S. history.

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"We're going to destroy a nation -- oh, wait, we never thought we'd have to fix this," said Mat Leonard, who plays Octavian, the first emperor of Rome at 16.

While his character watches Rome at war, Leonard thinks of the United States' intervention in Iraq -- kill the people in control, and no one has control anymore.

The Romans call for violence in the name of freedom, Tucker said. And for Brutus, losing the Republic would mean losing the power it gives him, land, possessions.

"'Freedom' is a good reason to keep what's mine," he acknowledged.

"The word coming up for me is ‘spin' -- watching Antony take an event and spin it," Borthwick-Leslie said.

James Udom as Mark Antony took fire, as Antony does when he turns the common people against Brutus.

"This is honor -- this is what Brutus has done in the name of honor --" this is what he has made of honor, but is this honor? "You decide," he said.

But on this stage, the knives decide. Caesar looked bluntly at the costs of that violence.

"I've had one knife stuck in me," he said, "and it hurt. To have five knives stuck into your offal" would be excruciating.

But as an actor, in that moment of violence he thinks more about the men holding the knives. Knowing they would do this to him gives the deepest pain.

"The betrayal is huge," he said. "You have the entire story of the play in that moment -- that sense of balance, parity, order, betrayal, ambition, ego, love. It's an immense thing."

That violence solves nothing, he said. It is a waste, and it lays waste.

Love is there, showing the depth of the betrayal, as love is there in Portia's desperation when her husband rejects her, and in Brutus' farewell to Jason Asprey as Cassius.

Shakespeare keeps coming back to love, Tucker said: love between the men, love between the husbands and wives, love and betrayal in their lives, making an epic thing incredibly human.

"He was a lover," he said.

On Stage

What: Bare Bard ‘Julius Caesar'

Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox

When: Through Aug. 30

Admission: $35 to $65

Information: (413) 636-3353, shakespeare.org


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