At this point in America, the toga is mostly thought of as the garb of drunken fraternity men or an easy last-minute Halloween costume. But in William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” staged with classic togas, pillars and stentorian argument in the Kennebunks by Mainestage Shakespeare Theater this summer, it’s hardly a party.
Indeed, the alpha and omega of Julius Caesar is argument itself – what does it take to be convinced that killing a friend is a worthy cause? How do you weigh friendship against freedom? How does personal love stack up against love of country? (“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more!”) And what about the fact that a winning argument fails the second a new, better argument comes along? What about your decisiveness then?
The edited production by MaineStage sticks mostly to the traditional, including togas, although actually this Caesar doesn’t seem all that bad. If anything, the fickle crowd and the great ghost have little to do with the difficult decisions undertaken by the men who love and run Rome. Like most free Shakespeare-in-the-park productions, this one must fill its full armies, households, and the Senate with double, triple, and quadruple casting. That can get a bit confusing if you don’t already know the play.
But the performances of the characters were clear and strong, and that’s all you really need for this intense story. This play is a fervent series of reasoning, justifications, explanations, contretemps, disputations, and fallings-out. At Lafayette Park on a July evening, the actors were mostly propelling their voices into a summer night, without benefit of microphones or even walls to bounce or echo the sound and feeling. The dynamics suffered somewhat, inevitably, although Kyle Walton as Mark Antony delivered an admirable range of soft and scorching rhetoric. He maybe needs that range most — he employs not just lofty argument and dancing words to persuade the crowds to turn against the conspirators, but also a hefty dose of sarcasm. That requires some changes in tone.
By the end of the play, it did seem that the actors’ voices were a bit spent. But this play is more than debate and war, and the MaineStage players made us feel the righteousness of each decision, the terribleness of each tough choice, and the lingering possibility of regret.
This is an excellent production for older children who can take the blood and violence but might be ready for their first Shakespeare production outside of school. It’s a lot, though, to contemplate, these ardent expressions of love between men who nevertheless seek to outwit and even kill each other. And that will make for some excellent discussion.
Passion, you see, is catching.
WHAT: MaineStage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; directed by Chiara Klein; performance nights alternate with the company’s Twelfth Night production
REVIEWED: July 16 at Lafayette Park, Kennebunk; performances are also at the Colony Hotel and the Village Green
INFO: Show runs through Aug. 22; mainestageshakespeare.com