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See Actors’ Theatre’s Julius Caesar Through June 18

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford See Actors’ Theatre’s Julius Caesar Through June 18Victor Little, with (from left to right) Travis Horseman and Samuel Bowen Partridge in the Actors' Theatre of Columbus production of Julius Caesar Photo by Jerri Shafer.
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Actors’ Theatre opened their 36th season over the weekend with a sublime, low-key production of Shakespeare’s historic tragedy Julius Caesar directed by Philip J. Hickman.

This Julius Caesar plays with the discontinuity of the contemporary world with the first scene as columns and marble statues provide a backdrop for a man being beaten with nightsticks and dragged off by police officers for defacing posters of the newly-returned war hero Caesar. A couple of scenes later, those same police officers are taken by agents of the state in paramilitary garb with bags over their head and never remarked upon.

Jennifer Feather Youngblood in the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production of Julius Caesar Photo by Jerri Shafer.

Julius Caesar (Victor Little) is charismatic but venal, we see him in glimpses and shifting shadows. He’s given tantalizing scenes showing how paranoia sets in when someone tries to give you a crown that still has blood on it. The leanness of this production is mostly a blessing, but the sharp abridgments in the first half do rob the audience of a little of the relationships between the characters. Putting even more of the weight on Brutus (Jennifer Feather Youngblood) and Cassius (Samuel Bowen Partridge) and their relationship doesn’t let us see the love Brutus has for Caesar but, luckily, Youngblood’s performance sells that exquisitely even if we don’t see evidence of it. Similarly, Little’s striking Caesar embodies the kind of smiling menace that draws us in even as we don’t want to get too close in a way that makes up for less stage time.

This Julius Caesar strips away the pomp and the graphic devastation, forcing us to focus on the devastation wrought by, and on, the hearts of, Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony (Travis Horseman). Youngblood nails the excruciating mental gymnastics in that gap after you’ve resigned to do a horrible thing because you’re convinced it’s right but it feels like falling into a great, cold void. The soft resignation in her voice as she says, “They are the faction” is as chilling as anything I’ve seen on a stage this year. Partridge’s voluble, neurotic take on Cassius is fascinating, we see him as a danger to himself as much as others, and the push-pull of his simmering blood and Brutus’ cool is the throbbing heart of the play. The rest of their conspiracy also acquit themselves admirably, particularly Casey Merker’s Casca and Elizabeth Girvin’s Cinna.

Travis Horseman’s Mark Antony is beguiling here. When he first appears, it feels like he walked in from a wildly different interpretation of the play, mannered and aggressively emotive, even using an accent out of place with anyone else on stage. As he rolls through the “Brutus is an honorable man” speech, one of the finest pieces of writing in the history of the stage, the canny, sly quality becomes apparent. Horseman does a better job at showing the inherent falseness and shallowness of Anthony than anyone I’ve ever seen on stage.

Samuel Bowen Partridge, with (from left to right) Jennifer Feather Youngblood, Victor Little and Travis Horseman in the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Jerri Shafer.

This Julius Caesar is a fresh, riveting take on a play that, sadly, never ages. We’ll never stop selling each other out, and we’ll never stop trying to put the pieces of our devastation back together in something that pleases us for a moment but never really satisfies our hunger. Some of the most breathtaking language ever delivered on a stage gets the poison-dipped-knife reading it deserves here.

Julius Caesar runs through June 18 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. For more information and reserved seating, visit theactorstheatre.org/2017-season/caesar/.

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