Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Julius Caesar
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Sean Hagerty, Barry Mulholland, Candice Handy,
and Jeremy Dubin

Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of Julius Caesar is not your standard-issue, 11th-grade English class rendition. Staged by the Brian Isaac Phillips, the company's producing artistic director, it's the classic story of power, betrayal, and loyalty through a new lens, one of cutthroat politics and organized crime. Caesar (Barry Mulholland) isn't quite Tony Soprano, but he has all the trappings and the demeanor of a Mafia don: a white suit, an entourage, overtly worshipful–but not reliably loyal–lieutenants.

Phillips's production uses the Otto M. Budig's spacious stage to full effect with an immersive in-the-round configuration, with a Stage Gallery, rows of two dozen seats for audience members willing to be extra close to the show's tragic scenes. Designed by Charles Calvert, the set blends classic Corinthian pillars and a stoic grey stone wall with video screens featuring Robert Carlton Stimmel's varied projections that intensify the action. Stimmel doubles as Cinna the Poet, who occasionally employs a handheld video camera to enlarge stage action on the overhead screens.

It's a noisy production from the get-go with "DJ Cinna" spinning thumping tunes for a crew of disco dancers who invite audience members to join in before the play's action begins. It flows perfectly into Shakespeare's opening scene of commoners, who are excoriated by a pair of tribunes for being part of such a ruckus.

The action moves quickly into an exchange between two Roman senators, Cassius (Candice Handy), jealous of Caesar's popularity and manipulative, and Brutus (Sean Hagerty), wary of the leader's precipitous rise to seemingly unbridled power. Handy carefully but quickly navigates the path to win over Hagerty's earnest and principled Brutus. With their fellow senators–Decius (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II), Cinna (Billy Chace), Murellus (Cary Davenport), Casca (Jeremy Dubin), Trebonius (Justin McCombs)–Caesar's brutal assassination is carried out on the Ides of March. But Brutus refuses Cassius's intention to also execute wily Mark Antony (Warren Jackson), a Caesar devotee. That's the beginning of the conspirators' downfall.

Hagerty effectively puts Brutus into momentary favor with the unruly crowd of angry plebians at Caesar's funeral, played by many of the same actors who fill other roles, but clad in blue-collar garb with snap-brim caps. Rainy Edwards's numerous 20th-century Italian costume designs for the company effectively define both the period and the characters.

Jackson, who initially represents Mark Antony as a fawning supporter of Caesar, seizes the moment with the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." speech, first praising the assassins for a necessary act, then subtly shifting to sarcastic characterizations, especially of Brutus, "an honorable man." The pliable populace is swayed by his words, despite his pronouncement: "I am no orator, as Brutus is,/ But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man/ That love my friend." Cassius and Brutus feel their moment slipping away and escape.

In the play's later scenes, they have landed in Greece and prepare to do battle at Philippi with the forces marshaled by Mark Antony and Octavius, Caesar's nephew–here played by Kelly Mengelkoch as a steely-eyed, fur-clad, cigarette-smoking female don. Handy's bravado as Cassius has been shaken, and Hagerty's honest Brutus is painfully aware that he has made fatefully bad decisions. He realizes that "the tide in the affairs of man" no longer leads to fortune for them but is rather "bound in shallows and in miseries." The two characters argue, reconcile, argue more. Following several scenes of raucous stage combat (Gina Cerimele-Mechley is the fight director), they understand that their fates are sealed.

Such scenes are underscored by bombastic sound (designed by Zack Bennett) and flashing video to great, chaotic effect. But the real focus in this production comes from Hagerty and Handy's effective delivery of their often long but meaningful monologues. (Interestingly, while Caesar gets marquee recognition in this play, he is dead by the third act–only to reappear a few times as a morbid ghost. Brutus is truly the protagonist, with Cassius a close second.) Handy gives Cassius the necessary firepower and flash, often as much in furious glances and angry speech; Hagerty's straightforward Brutus is indeed, "the noblest Roman of them all," a man of principle and integrity who strays from his better judgment and too late recognizes the error of his way.

In a striking convergence of art and history, Cincy Shakes will present a special event on the fateful Ides of March, foretold in the play as the day of Caesar's demise. To mark the occasion, the company will have a "Togas and Tarot Night," inviting audience members to attend in the spirit of ancient Rome. Guests are encouraged to don togas or Roman attire and, if appropriately attired, to sit in the onstage gallery section. The evening will also feature complimentary tarot card readings in the lobby, inspired by the soothsayer's warning to Caesar. No need to "beware the Ides of March"–this is a chance to celebrate this cleverly conceived production.

Julius Caesar runs through March 24, 2024, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street (adjacent to Washington Park in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-381-2273.