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By Beki Pineda

JULIUS CAESAR. Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Anthony Powell. Produced by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, on the CU campus) through Aug. 12. Tickets available at 303-492-8008 or www.cupresents.org.

There is a feature at the Shakes that some of you may not have experienced. About 45 minutes before the show starts, someone associated with the production offers a Prologue that explains the history of the evening’s play, some pertinent back stories, and how some of the decisions were made regarding the current production. This takes place in the back rows of the Rippon Theatre, and everyone is invited to partake. It often fills in some of the gaps in your knowledge of the script and enhances your understanding and enjoyment of the production. I HIGHLY recommend that you get there early and become part of the Prologue audience.

The Prologue for JULIUS CAESAR filled us in on the true conflict between Caesar and Pompey and why his fellow Senators became wary of Caesar’s influence over the people of Rome. Shakespeare jumps right into the middle of Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome and the conspirators’ plan to bring him down. Cassius (a lean and hungry Matthew Schneck) is the source of the scheme to eliminate Caesar as a threat to the Republic. Casca, Cinna, Trebonius, Cimber and Ligarius are all willing participants in the assassination plot. However, because of the respect in which he is held, they wait for Brutus (Scott Coopwood) to assume a leadership role. A man of personal integrity and honesty, Brutus is slowly convinced of the wisdom of their plan, and joins them. Despite warnings from both a soothsayer (“Beware the Ides of March”) and Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, whose dream has foretold a dire happening, Caesar goes to the Senate on the fateful day and is, as predicted, the victim of a foul and bloody death.

While this was a political assassination brought about by differing opinions of what was best for Rome, there were followers of Caesar who did not agree with this solution. Prime among them was Marc Antony who, while pretending submission to the will of the killers, garners permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral. While praising the assassins as “honorable” men, he sarcastically uses their own words against them. He nevertheless manages to rouse the commoners against them and start a war that rages between opposing factors until none survive. Because he honestly believed that what he was doing was for the good of Rome and not for personal power, Brutus is remembered as “the noblest Roman of them all.”

A turning point in the story is, of course, Marc Antony’s appeal to the commoners. The scene during which Marc Antony promises that he understands the conspirators and wishes only to speak in memory of Caesar at his funeral was especially touching. He visibly trembles in their presence, leading them to think he is fearful and submissive, when actually his trembling is the product of anger. A combination of Christopher Joel Onken’s passionate delivery of the funeral oration and the clever staging of the speech in the middle of the audience gave it a power not usually seen.

It is easy to draw comparisons to modern politics, but Shakespeare would argue against violence as a political solution. It is thought that he, a royalist, wrote this play to rebut those who would plot violence against Queen Elizabeth I. This script illustrates effectively the folly of thinking that violent actions against a powerful leader will ever work. The conspirators end up dead – some by their own hand – and dishonored.

The battle scenes near the end of the play as Brutus’ forces meet Marc Antony’s  on the battleground are some of the most powerful I’ve seen staged. Much is owed to fight directors Christopher DuVal, Benaiah Anderson and Ava Kostia (who plays Laertes in the fatal swordfight in HAMLET).

While there is a reason for it, it seemed a little off-putting to have the commoners in modern dress during the first scene and then repeat the device. But the Roman costumes were beautiful and denoted easily the distinction between the soldier leaders and the Senators. The lighting design by Shannon McKinney was especially effective, and a true component in setting the mood and beauty of the production. The sure-handed direction of Anthony Powell kept the story moving forward and the players clear.

WOW factor: 8.5