Julius Caesar has come home victorious. Banners emblazoned in red letters reading “Hail Caesar” and “Keep Rome great forever” greet him in Rome.
The people toss rose petals in his path while his fellow senators speculate about his political ambitions. A soothsayer warns Caesar, “Beware the ides of March.”
The undercurrent in Opera House Arts’ multilayered production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is the unspoken admonition: “Beware Election Day.” Performed through Sunday, the production makes no overt references to any presidential candidates but does emphasize how a mob may be manipulated to cry havoc.
Presented in the three-quarter round at the Stonington Opera House, director Peter Richards subtlely parallels the politics of ancient Rome with those rumbling across America today. There’s similar speculation and declarations that are half-truths fueled by innuendo in the play — all because Caesar three times rejects an offer to be king without enough gusto for his fellow senators.
The cast, for the most part, gives outstanding performances. The men who plot Caesar’s demise are convinced their cause is true, but their motives are different.
The motives of Christopher Michael McFarland’s Brutus are noble. He fears the republic will be lost if Caesar declares himself king. McFarland gallantly portrays the man who righteously sacrifices his position and his family for Rome.
As Brutus’ foil Mark Antony, Thomas Piper is brilliant. He delivers Caesar’s eulogy with an angry, bitter irony that not only rallies the rabble but expresses the pain of a nation grieving the sudden loss of a beloved leader. Piper’s Mark Antony speaks and wields his sword, not out of revenge but for the people who have been wronged by Caesar’s assassination. His ability to portray this man as someone void of ambition is a true triumph.
Matt Hurley, Bari Robinson and Joshua McCarey as Brutus’ co-conspirators give performances as fine and layered as McFarland and Piper do. Jason Martin’s Cassius is not as well defined. The character’s motives are never as clear as are his fellow assassins. Because Cassius constantly works to persuade other characters to slay Caesar, it is imperative that theatergoers understand why the character believes assassination is the only answer. Martin’s performance never makes Cassius’ reasons clear.
As Caesar, Eric Messner is properly regal and occasionally pompous. He portrays the emperor without guile and gives no hint that Caesar lusts after a crown, which makes the assassination all the more tragic.
Melody Bates portrays three characters, though none of them well. It is impossible to tell the difference between her Calpurnia and Portia, wives to Caesar and Brutus, respectively. Her portrayal of Octavius is far too childlike to preview the great warrior and emperor he would become.
The design team has done fine work executing Richard’s vision of Rome.
Robin Vest’s white-and-gold set glistens like marble under the florescent lights directly above it. The set looks like resurrected Roman ruins and provides a stark contrast to the roses petals strewn out for Caesar’s return and his spilled blood. Except for its shape, the long rectangular platform bears no resemblance to the colored wooden planks on which “An Iliad” was performed.
The lighting design by Natalie Robin makes the white set gleam, yet starkly illuminates the actors at times. The visual contrast between the brightly lit porcelain-colored set and the dark deeds performed onstage helps give the production a rare visual vibrancy that only happens when the director and the designers share the same vision.
Kate Mincer’s costumes nicely combine some modern dress, such as white dress shirts and casual slacks, with the traditional Roman soldier garb. The sound design by Mark Van Hare adds to the intensity of the production without being intrusive.
The result of the designers’ work is that theatergoers feel as though they are peeking around pillars, eavesdropping on the local political intrigue similar to what might be discussed in any town square before an annual town meeting.
Opera House Arts again sends theatergoers home asking question not just about society but about how susceptible they are to mob rhetoric.
“Julius Caesar” will be performed through Aug. 7 at the Stonington Opera House. For information, call 367-2788 or visit operathousearts.org.