It's almost summer, it's warm outside, and we're all broke. This is clearly the time to yank a lawn chair off the front porch some evening and go see free outdoor theater featuring conniving malcontents, political intrigue, and multiple murders. Happily, this is all made possible by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival and its production of Julius Caesar, now being performed consecutively at three different alfresco sites in the Cleveland area.
If you still seize up in a cold sweat thinking about old Bill's tragedy, after the torture of having studied it in high school, you can set those fears aside. This abridged version of Julius Caesar runs only an hour and 40 minutes without an intermission and contains all the famous quotes and speeches. While somewhat wrinkled in conception and execution, it's a fine (not to mention damn economical) way to spend a balmy evening.
Of course, there is nothing mild about the Julius Caesar script. If Shakespeare were alive today and had just written a play about a country's leader being assassinated because people feared he was going to become a tyrant, Cheney and Rummy would soon have the Bard holding down a cot in a chain-link kennel at Guantanamo. This CSF production largely steers clear of such political overtones, however, presenting Caesar's triumphal reentry into Rome as a keg party, with a couple drunken louts mime-pissing against the upstage flats. The proceedings quickly turn more serious, as Cassius (captivatingly played as a powerful, stealthy woman by Alison Hernan) bends her buddy Brutus's ear regarding Caesar's supposedly outsized ambition. You know the rest: Beware the ides, Caesar stabbed, "Et tu, Brute?", Mark Antony's eulogy -- then Brutus and Cassius turned into shish kebabs on the plains of Philippi.
In addition to Hernan, there are solid performances by Kevin Brewer as thoughtful Brutus and Mark Cipra as ego-driven Caesar. The two thankless women's roles, Calpurnia and Portia, are portrayed with genuine passion by Kate Duffield and Bernadette Clemens. And Aaron B. Coleman, thin as a Motel 6 bath towel, registers as both the soothsayer and a doomed poet. Leilani Barrett's Antony exudes a studly presence, but he relies too much on volume modulations, muting the ironic nuances of Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen . . ." oration. Also, a number of the smaller roles are given hollow line readings that briefly impede the play's momentum.
Some interesting stage effects are implemented by director Jeffery Allen, including scarlet streamers to represent the flow of blood, as well as the occasional use of mood-heightening percussion. And anachronisms abound, since the modern-dress actors use laptops to communicate, but fight with swords and staffs. But there is an unfortunate absence of real terror. When Cassius and her cabal visit Brutus to plan Caesar's demise, they are wearing hooded sweatshirts that make them look about as threatening as a soccer team heading out to practice during a drizzle.
Still, this is one Caesar that's free, fresh, and well worth an evening's visit.