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The Shakespeare's Roman Repertory sets the action in the intended time and place and is all the better for it

If you fall into that demographic of individuals who love reading The Onion and seeing the works of William Shakespeare (we’ll not mention your Public Radio tote bag and hybrid car filled with organic produce), you might recall the paper’s headline, ”Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” What is it about Shakespeare that inspires creative types to move his stories — set in Verona and Scotland and ancient Rome — to beachside communities, contemporary Manhattan and Nazi-era Germany? (More actors have taken the stage dressed as Nazis in the name of Shakespeare than for all the productions of The Sound of Music ever done.)

That’s why, when you enter a theater like Harman Hall to see a pair of Shakespeare plays written to be set in ancient Rome and see that the stage is actually dressed as a Roman forum, your heart quickens. The Harman is a just-out-of-the-box space. It all but begs for something fresh and exciting.

Hammond as Brutus
Hammond as Brutus
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

And against conventional wisdom, that’s exactly what Shakespeare Theatre Company delivers with their Roman Repertory: Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

As beautifully costumed and brilliantly designed as these STC performances are, by rendering them in their intended time and place directors Michael Kahn (Cleopatra) and David Muse (Caesar) are offering audiences plays that feel clean and positively modern. They’ve allowed the clever humor and scathing commentary to shine through to an audience with a particular appreciation for political drama.

It’s fitting that STC has chosen to launch the Roman Repertory as the television industry is engaged in May sweeps. Those who admit to watching television know that this is a time when it is not uncommon for characters from one program to suddenly show up in another network offering.

STC’s repertory offering does that very thing by having the actors playing such key characters as Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus carry their performances from one play to the next. The device creates a solid foundation of reality for their Rome. For those who have not brushed up their Shakespeare, Julius Caesar tells the story of the plot against the titular Roman emperor (Dan Kreemer). A harsh critique of the malleable nature of public opinion and political loyalty, Julius Caesar is, as one audience member noted upon taking her seat, ”The Ides of March one.”

Chief in the conspiracy are Caius Cassius (Scott Parkinson) and Marcus Brutus (Tom Hammond). (Yes, this is also the ”Et tu, Brutus?” one.) Parkinson and Hammond are perfectly cast in their roles with Hammond particularly striking as the conflicted and emotionally broad Brutus. He offers audiences a vulnerable and grimly honed performance as the man who gives everything for his country.

Caesar’s most notable defender, and later avenger, is Marc Antony (Andrew Long). Long’s stage presence is imposing and the actor exudes an alluring vitality. It makes for a fascinating dynamic with Kreemer’s engaging interpretation of the ego-hungry and desperate Julius Caesar.

This is not to say that there aren’t some elements of Julius Caesar that fall short. Antony’s wife, Portia (Nancy Rodriguez), shows no range and her impassioned pleas are unmoving and vaguely annoying. The choreography of the play’s pivotal Senate scene is near comic and feels unconsidered rather than frenzied.

Most concerning is the performance of Julius Caesar’s heir, Octavius Caesar (Aubrey K. Deeker). Deeker’s thin, two-dimensional performance not only stands in sharp contrast to the robust work of his fellow players but casts a reedy shadow over the second play in STC’s Roman Repertory, Antony and Cleopatra.

JULIUS CAESAR
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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
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Harman Hall
610 F St. NW
To July 6
$23.50-$79.75
202-547-1122
www.shakespearetheatre.org

Antony and Cleopatra continues the dramatic arc begun in Julius Caesar. Octavius Caesar (Deeker) has assumed leadership of the Roman Empire with Marc Antony (Long) at his side. At least in spirit. In reality, Antony is in Egypt where he has fallen in love with Cleopatra (Suzanne Bertish). The affair creates a rift between the Octavius and Antony and, to heal the wounds and convince the Roman emperor of his loyalty, Antony agrees to marry Octavius’ sister. This is a political maneuver that finds no favor with the Egyptian queen.

What follows is a play that, while no less brutal in its action, has a lighter humor than Julius Caesar. A great deal of this is thanks to the chemistry between Long and Bertish.

Bertish is exquisite as Cleopatra. Sexy and teasing, she is giving Washington audiences the opportunity to see a great role performed brilliantly. As in Julius Caesar, Deeker simply fails to hit the high marks set by those around him. Nowhere is this made more evident than in the decision to close both Caesar and Cleopatra with a similar visual effect. Where Kreemer’s Julius projects a sinister imperiousness, Deeker’s Octavius is an empty and unimpressive threat.

But this should not be enough to keep audiences away from STC’s Roman Repertory. And don’t hesitate. For once in this town, the political intrigue is over in just a few hours.