The true star of Shakespeare Festival/L.A.'s contempo version of "Julius Caesar" is the massive, many-staired expanse of downtown L.A.'s City Hall. Director Andrew Tsao stages the piece against the backdrop of the gigantic stone columns, which create an aura of power that engulfs the more-than-competent acting ensemble.

The true star of Shakespeare Festival/L.A.’s contempo version of “Julius Caesar” is the massive, many-staired expanse of downtown L.A.’s City Hall. Director Andrew Tsao stages the piece against the backdrop of the gigantic stone columns, which create an aura of power that engulfs the more-than-competent acting ensemble — whose machinations often appear like the struttings of children compared to the immovable immensity surrounding them.

Effectively utilizing such modern-day trappings as TV cameras, rap, rock ‘n’ roll, fascist-like military attire (kudos to costumer Elizabeth Hope Clancy) and even the unscheduled, chaotic noises of the city (helicopters, ambulances, auto horns, etc.), Tsao keeps Shakespeare’s plot ever-present, imaginatively incorporating the dramatic natural entrances and exits provided by the stairs and columns.

Though the inconsistent sound system of Juvencio Segura occasionally plays havoc with the conversational flow, this is a worthy telling of the tale of all mighty Julius Caesar (Dakin Mathews), whose crushing victory over the armies of Pompeii leads to fear and distrust amongst his senators, lead by the petulant firebrand Cassius (Robert Pescovitz) and the philosophical but troubled Brutus (Rif Hutton).

The murder of Caesar unleashes the “dogs of war” and leads to the tragic bloodletting of these “honorable men” whose ideals and ambitions prove no match for the rage of Caesar’s allies, the manipulative Marc Antony (Tom Schanley) and Caesar’s adopted son, the coyly understated Octavius (Alicia Wollerton).

Mathews is a magnificently imperious Caesar, whose lofty station in life flows effortlessly over the heads of everyone about him. It is a telling moment when this regal figure is dragged down by men who are so much less than him. It is even more telling when Caesar’s silent ghost overpowers the doings of the mere mortals on stage.

Hutton is a striking figure as the ambivalent Brutus, who manages to show deep concern and respect for Caesar while plotting his death. Hutton is effective in his face-off with Marc Antony at Caesar’s eulogy when he justifies his actions (“not that I loved Caesar less but I loved Rome more”).

Pescovitz creates a quirky, almost endearingly distrustful Cassius but often allows the passion of his speeches to overwhelm his characterization.

Schanley exudes as much deviousness as love and sorrow in Antony’s actions to avenge the death of Caesar. He is remarkably cool and calculating as his Antony takes measure of the daggers that surround him at the murder scene. At the eulogy, he allows one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches to unfold at a deliciously casual pace, gradually escalating his fervor, quite believably inciting the riot that follows.

Lending solid support is Clive Rosengren’s humor-filled Casca, who manages to be droll even while plotting the death of Caesar. Also effective in roles that usually lend themselves more to angst than character are Nike Doukas as Brutus’ wife Portia and Wollerton as Calpurnia, the wife of Caesar. Wollerton, however, is later miscast as the young Octavius, who is supposed to embody the character traits that would eventually lead him to be victorious over all.

Julius Caesar

L.A. City Hall; 300 seats; $15 top

Production

Shakespeare Festival/L.A. presents a play (performed in two acts) by William Shakespeare. Directed by Andrew Tsao.

Creative

Scenic design, Karen TenEyck; costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lights, Bob Howell; sound, Juvencio Segura; fight director, Randy Kovitz. Opened July 11, 1998. Reviewed July 15. Runs until Aug. 2 (moves to South Coast Botanic Gardens, Palos Verdes, on July 23). Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Brutus - Rif Hutton Julius Caesar - Dakin Mathews Cassius - Robert Pescovitz Marc Antony - Tom Schanley Portia/Soothsayer/Strato - Nike Doukas Calpurnia/Soothsayer/ Octavius - Alicia Wollerton Casca - Clive Rosengren Poet/Messenger - Ryan Yu
Other Conspirators: Victor Buno, Jim Eusterman, John Jabaley, Julius Tennon

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