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Director Estelle Shook’s sparse set is effective, with only six grey pillars on the stage and simple white-and-red togas on the cast.

Paul Lampert

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Julius Caesar
Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Estelle Shook
Actors
Sean Baek, Allegra Fulton, Allan Louis, Michael McManus
Company
Canadian Stage
Venue
High Park in Toronto

Sometimes directors are so determined to show how a classic play speaks to us now, that they forget to just sit back and listen to what it has to say. That's the problem with the version of Julius Caesar launching Canadian Stage's 33rd season of Shakespeare in High Park.

Like the play's story, about the ill-fated plot to assassinate Caesar and liberate Rome, Estelle Shook's production starts out strong then falls apart. Determined to make Shakespeare's historical tragedy relevant for a contemporary audience, she starts introducing images that evoke Toronto's G20 protests, the Occupy movement and the Anonymous hacktivists. The intent is presumably to make us go "aha!" But the tepid response of the audience on opening night read more like a bewildered "huh?"

Yes, Julius Caesar is directly relatable today if you live under a popular strongman who is turning your republic into a dictatorship. In other words, it's a great play for Russia right now. But for Canada? Despite some of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's autocratic tendencies, not so much.

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The play's greatness lies not in any political message, but in its psychological insights. And early on, Shook seems to appreciate that. She keeps the focus strongly on the motives and relations of the four principal figures: Caesar (Allan Louis), the co-conspirators Brutus (Sean Baek) and Cassius (Allegra Fulton), and Caesar's right-hand man, Mark Antony (Dylan Trowbridge). Although Shakespeare's Caesar is an aging lion, Louis plays him impressively as a charismatic commander at the height of his powers. If anything, he reminds you of Othello – and not just because the actor happens to be black. But where Othello's flaw was jealousy, Caesar's is a massive ego hidden behind false modesty.

Fulton is excellent as Cassius, burning with palpable envy and resentment. Baek is a calm, rational Brutus, methodically (if erroneously) reasoning that killing Caesar will curtail tyranny.

Trowbridge's Antony is convincingly distraught over the dictator's death, but we don't get a sense of the man's cunning. His oration over Caesar's body, in which he artfully sways the mob to rebellion, is so emotional that it no longer comes across as a brilliant exercise in irony.

Shook is no stranger to Shakespeare in High Park, having helmed an enjoyable version of The Winter's Tale in 2011. This time out, she's here as a graduate student in York University's directing program, part of Canadian Stage's collaboration with that institution. Her familiarity with the venue and with open-air performance (she also formerly ran B.C.'s Caravan Farm Theatre) is an asset. She wisely saves her visual effects for after the sun goes down and makes full use of the High Park Amphitheatre as a playing space.

Her most inspired flourish is to stage the assassination in the amphitheatre's central aisle. Strikingly choreographed, with doom-laden music from sound designer Lyon Smith, it's an electrifying scene: Louis's Caesar, riddled with stab wounds, reels and staggers down the steps towards his final "Et tu, Brute?" at the edge of the stage.

Shook's other inspired touch is to conflate the ides of March soothsayer with Cinna the poet, now played by Michael McManus as a ragged, middle-aged anarchist who runs about wielding a megaphone and clutching a crumpled sheaf of papers as he recites spoken-word poems-cum-prophesies.

Yet when this figure becomes a bigger presence late in the show, he only adds to the growing confusion about what Shook is trying to say. His rantings take over, as do those contemporary protest images, while the tragedy of Brutus gets lost in the din. Even Mark Antony's famous eulogy for the "noblest Roman" is tossed off perfunctorily by Trowbridge, as if the play's most sympathetic character were barely worth considering.

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It's a shame, since the early part of the production is so engrossing. And Shook's "naked" staging is very effective, with just six grey columns on an otherwise bare stage and the actors simply wearing identical white-and-red togas over modern street clothes. (The set was designed by Teresa Przybylski, the costumes by Michelle Tracey.) Much of the acting is also a pleasure, especially Naomi Wright's insouciant, watermelon-munching Casca and Dalal Badr as Caesar's anxious wife Calpurnia.

In the end, however, Shook lets concept trump characterization to the detriment of the play. Where we ought to leave Julius Caesar feeling the poignancy of Brutus's pure but misguided intentions, we're given Antony doing a silly hip-hop victory dance.

Julius Caesar runs to Sept. 5 in repertory with The Comedy of Errors (to Sept. 6) at High Park in Toronto (canadianstage.com).

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