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The Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival closes its 2005-2006 season with a streamlined and fast-paced production of Julius Caesar, the Bard's historical tragedy about the assassination of the great Roman emperor and the bloody civil war that transpired in its aftermath. Director Dennis Lee Delaney has combined some characters, eliminated others, transposed lines and chopped out whole scenes in an attempt to construct a more readable road map of the shifting political alliances and convoluted martial landscape traveled by Rome's most famous power players: Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius (he of the lean and hungry look) and Mark Antony.

But in trying to make the play's intricate story line more palatable and exciting, Delaney and his company have sacrificed many of the work's deeper political, moral, spiritual and human qualities. The show whisks by in two and half hours; though its requisite assassination scene, its obligatory battle segments and its famous lines and speeches remain intact, the overall effect felt by evening's end is one of curious emptiness. This is a production that is filled with sound and fury, but little of significance actually gets said.

Delaney has set the scene in some mythical, quasi-modern terrain. Caesar and his Senate wear Roman robes over their tailored Italian suits, and the conspirators sport some khaki-colored, vaguely military uniforms. At the beginning, it looks as if Delaney has got an interesting inspiration going. Dan McCleary – who played the title role in 2004's Antony and Cleopatra with strong and poignant efficacy – here portrays Brutus as a somewhat shy and introverted bureaucrat. His love of Caesar is as real as his understanding that power may indeed have corrupted his old friend. He is reluctant to act on his conjecture, but his sense of justice and his fear of an incipient dictatorship gnaw at him endlessly. Jim Ireland's Casca is a careworn functionary who has to drink away the hypocrisy of la vie politique from a pocket flask, and Steven Patterson gives Cassius a Patton-esque military brusqueness, pointing to the potential of a coup d'état from the right wing.

All of this suggests that there will be some parallel to a more contemporary vision of power and political intrigue – something we can grasp as a useful metaphor for our own epoch. But alas, this is not to be. As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that the director's concept really doesn't dig much deeper than having the soothsayer ("Beware the Ides of March!") played as a bag lady; what could have been a provocative interpretation of the classic play turns out to be mere artifice. Moreover, as soon as Johnny Lee Davenport appears as the triumphant Julius Caesar, fresh from his battlefield victories over the sons of Pompey, all promises of an interesting and subtle rendition are dashed with his overly broad acting and EXTREMELY LOUD DECLAMATIONS!!! Davenport's Caesar is hardly the wily soldier and survivor who bestrode "the narrow world like a Colossus." Instead, he comes across as a vain and petty popinjay, hardly worth running the risk of conspiracy and murder over.

McCleary tries hard to mine the guilt-ridden topography of the Brutus character, and the most interesting scenes of the play are those in which he attempts to rationalize his murderous course. But McCleary's quietly thoughtful interpretation ultimately gets swept up in the tide of the production's accelerated action and noisy spectacle. In the play's second half, when McCleary's Brutus and Patterson's Cassius get the opportunity to explore the dynamics of friendship and recrimination, instead of real-life interaction, we are served up more histrionics and more DECLAMATION! than is necessary for actors who are sufficiently miked and amplified. David Hardie's Mark Antony likewise falls prey to the production's insistence on strident speechifying: Most of his "Friends, Romans, countrymen … " monologue is actually shouted over the crowd's noisy hectoring. It is only in the small roles for women – Sarah Hankins as Brutus' wife, Portia, and Be Boyd as Caesar's wife, Calpurnia – that we get an appreciative dose of humanity and nuance.

In Aristotle's "Poetics," written during the golden age of ancient Greek drama, the philosopher enumerates the building blocks of tragedy, in order of importance. First, he writes, there is plot, followed by character, thought, diction, song and spectacle. OSF's Julius Caesar has erred in striving for plot (which only a history or classics major could adequately follow anyway, regardless of the cast's efforts), making way too much of clever spectacle, and going completely overboard on DICTION! Character and thought have gotten the short shrift; as a result, we take away precious little of import from our encounter with these mighty historical personages.

Julius Caeser
through May 7
Walt Disney Amphitheater, Lake Eola Park

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