LENOX — As “Julius Caesar” opens, seven people huddled together shuffle forward, moving as one unit. But when the lights come up on the stage of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, the group bursts into action. What was a blur of people becomes distinct individuals: a husband and his heartbroken wife, a faithful servant and his master, an angry mob. Once again, director Tina Packer clears away anything that might distract from William Shakespeare’s tale of ambition, pride, and political manipulation. The seven actors who arrive in that huddle emerge to perform more than 40 roles for an effect that is never less than exhilarating.
The energy the ensemble projects for Packer’s “bare Bard” production never falters for a moment, plunging the audience headlong into a drama that traces disillusionment with a war hero who would be king of Rome; the delicate persuasion required to convince Caesar’s allies of the necessity of murder; the crafty way in which Mark Antony turns the tables on the conspirators; and the subsequent “dogs of war” the assassination unleashes. In the close confines of the Bernstein theater, the audience is drawn into the fray as bodies fall inches away from us and members of the mob mingle among us.
The seven-member ensemble — Jason Asprey, Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, Nigel Gore, Mat Leonard, Eric Tucker, James Udom, and Kristin Wold — morph effortlessly from faceless members of a mob to individual Romans. Nothing is lost in Shakespeare’s emotional roller coaster ride. In fact, the gentle philosopher Brutus’s efforts at rationalizing his act of betrayal become clearer than ever before; the wisdom of the veteran general Cassius more poignant; and flattery of Casca more smarmy.
Even as Packer focuses on the personal relationships among these flawed characters, with the slightest suggestions and simplest staging, she orients us to the Forum and the marketplace of Rome, the bedrooms and battle tents of her characters. Ryan McGettigan’s set includes a backdrop where the actors can line up and, for a moment, stand apart from whatever more intimate drama is taking place in front of them. Between the suggestively draped netting and the simplest collection of tables and stools, we are transported to a world we recognize not necessarily as Rome, or even Elizabethan England, but as the universal place where friendships are tested and ambition overwhelms all.
In the title role (and many others), Gore offers a three-dimensional Julius Caesar, who is swayed by the flattery of his favorites and buoyed by his military conquests, even as he tries to placate his worried wife and struggles with the physical weakness brought on by illness. When Gore steps up onto a platform and poses as a statue of Caesar, we know exactly who he is and where we are. When he and the company come together to suggest the destructive portent of the deadly asp, the simple movement of their hands delivers a spine-tingling shiver of what’s to come.
And that is the beauty of Packer’s bare Bard production: Her laser-sharp focus on the storytelling highlights not simply Shakespeare’s glorious language in a totally accessible way, it also illuminates the fundamentally familiar motivations of the individuals who live and breathe in a world that might take place in ancient Rome but is so full of contemporary passion and energy, it still leaves us breathless.