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Theatre in Review: Julius Caesar (Shakespeare@ Home)

If you're tired of online Zoom readings -- and who isn't? - take a break with Shakespeare@ Home, an intrepid troupe dedicated to reviving the great days of radio theatre. The concept is simple and elegant: Assemble a group of classically trained actors, record one of Shakespeare plays, and release it in across three or four weekly episodes in downloadable form. You can enjoy it as serialized drama or binge it when all the episodes are available.

With its taut, thriller-like construction, Julius Caesar adapts especially well to this format. As sleekly adapted and directed by Sean Hagerty, it benefits from a number of incisive performances, beginning with Patrick Page, making excellent use of his sandpaper-and-skepticism voice in the title role. If Jordan Barbour (no relation to your correspondent) wasn't entirely persuasive as Marc Antony in a recent production at Theatre for a New Audience, his Brutus is a tormented conniver par excellence. (He is as good as Ben Whishaw in Nicholas Hytner's Bridge Theatre production, my personal gold standard among Julius Caesars). If Keith Hamilton Cobb's Cassius comes across as a touch stentorian at first, he gets better, and his scenes with Barbour are thick with tension and menace. And Ashlie Atkinson quite possibly makes more of the role of Portia, Brutus' terrified wife, than anyone I've seen; their anguished confrontation is one of the highlights of the second episode. (This review is based on the first two episodes, but I will add that strong impressions are also made by Jonathan Forbes, James Howard, Sky Lakota-Lynch, and Mark Torres.)

Other valuable contributions are made by the composer Joan Melton, whose work provides a subtle undertone of suspense, and the sound design of Dan Gerhard and Ellen Fitton, who provides a variety of effects -- crowds, trumpets, thunderstorms -- that help to ground each scene in its stated location; the murder of Caesar is rendered sickeningly realistic thanks to the sounds of daggers piercing flesh.

There is never a bad time to experience Julius Caesar, but, as this winter of our discontent comes to a close, one can't help but notice how, after several centuries, Shakespeare's grasp of politics remains stingingly accurate. It's commonplace to call his plays timeless, but the action of this (and the history plays) often feels like a CNN broadcast. The ways in which politicians and other highly placed personages maneuver, insinuate, and betray each other never seems to change; the naked pursuit of power eternally feeds on itself, breeding disaster for all involved.

Thanks to its strong performances, slick production values, and imaginative use of the radio-play format, this Julius Caesar offers real pleasure. It and the company's previous productions -- The Tempest and Richard II -- are also available at www.shakespeare-at.org, as well as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Stitcher. The plays are free, but donations are cheerfully accepted. -- David Barbour

(1 March 2021)

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