Julius Caesar
Shakespeare on the Sound,  Rowayton

By Irene Backalenick

Ezra Barnes, artistic director of Shakespeare on the Sound, makes the most of his company’s setting. Certainly this is true of the Rowayton venue, where “Julius Caesar” now holds forth. (Whether the Greenwich park, where the production moves next month, will be equally effective, remain to be seen.)

Barnes has his players popping up in the audience or racing down the grassy slopes to the stage. Not only do they bring the Shakespearean classic to life, but they drag the audience into the very proceedings. And why not? Pinkney Park, on the banks of the Five-Mile River in Rowayton offers the ideal setting for outdoor theater. The show begins in daylight, as the citizens of Rome gather to celebrate their leader. But as the day darkens, the story darkens as well. In no time Brutus and his cohorts are planning the murder of Julius Caesar.

The tragedy itself is remarkably suited to our time—dealing as it does with a political leader and his suitability for the role. Caesar has returned from the wars, but is his cloak of dignity and humility real or feigned? Is it Rome he loves—or himself? Will he preserve the freedom of his subjects—or become a tyrant? Is he, as one character says, “ambitious”?

So the battle is engaged, and very soon the conflict heats up. A group of conspirators, fearing the direction in which Caesar heads, plans—and indeed executes—his assassination. Leader of the cabal is the “noble Brutus,” a respected citizen, who is persuaded by others that Caesar is moving toward tyranny. Brutus has honorable motives, which may or may not be shared by his fellow conspirators.

Shakespeare, in his usual fashion, has created characters of such complexity that arguments can be made for all sides. It is left to the viewer to decide where justice abides. But the plot itself is beautifully focused, climaxing with Mark Antony’s funeral speech.

How well does this “Julius Caesar” work? Barnes has staged it beautifully, offering striking images which veer from stark reality to stylized moments, even as the play itself moves between reality and fantasy. As he often did, Shakespeare enhances the story’s everyday realities with the murdered man’s ghost, omens, soothsayers, and strange nocturnal happenings.

In this cast of nineteen players (if we counted correctly), it is inevitable that some give stronger performances than others. There is a tendency among several players to declaim their lines. (It is only fair to note that this reviewer saw the show in preview, and kinks may yet be eliminated.) But others are outstanding, namely Douglas Harmsen as Brutus, whose beautiful voice sends lines “trippingly on the tongue,” and Marcus Naylor whose Marc Antony comes into his own when he turns the mob against the conspirators. Moreover, Peter Bretz is a strong Cassius and Libya Pugh pumps a range of emotions into her Portia.

Families are seated on the hillside, picnics and children in much evidence, as they look down on the charming theater. In pre-curtain time, Dan Kelly, who is a teaching artist in the company’s educational outreach program, gathered the children in one area to share the story and discuss its themes.

In all, Shakespeare on the Sound (or on the river, to be exact) is more than a show. It is an event.

(This review appears in the Connecticut Post and on www.nytheaterscene.com)


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