“Julius Caesar” is a great starter play for the Shakespeare novice. The language is exceptionally clear and direct, and salted with familiar phrases (at which audience members are invited to nod their heads and grunt, knowingly). And unlike the befuddling parade of Henrys and Edwards in Shakespeare’s English-history plays, figures such as Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Mark Antony remain ever-familiar even to contemporary audiences.
The production now closing the second season of Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston seems geared for the sort of theatergoer who needs to be assured the experience won’t be painful. (Some promotional materials cheekily promised a “toga-free” production.) But though the director and her actors (all under 35) choose to add an exclamation point to seemingly every line and thematic gesture, this intense, adrenaline-filled adaptation stays rooted in the text. It seldom pauses for subtlety or reflection, aiming to translate its urgency to an audience unfamiliar with it while not undercutting the author with many look-how-edgy poses.
This play’s story is forever relevant, without conceptual embellishment — a powerful ruler is seen to grow tyrannical, and his aggrieved subjects seek a violent remedy that makes for unintended consequences. (Indeed, in trying to preserve Rome’s version of democracy, the historical conspirators actually ushered in the age of emperors.)
In her directorial debut, Olivia D’Ambrosio, also Bridge Rep’s producing artistic director, takes great pains to be sure she doesn’t leave her audience behind. She’s trimmed the play to under two hours, delivered in one fast-paced act. The soothsayer role is shared by two actresses (Lindsay Eagle and Anneke Reich) who announce scene directions and character entrances. Though they’re generally deft with text, every actor seems to have been encouraged to wring as much emotion as possible from every line — often in the form, simply, of increased volume — which makes for clear storytelling but does get grating.
John Tracey plays up the sarcastic side of chief conspirator Cassius but makes him snarky and bitter. When Brutus (Joe Short) and his fellow conspirators settle on an assassination plan, and when he later instructs them all to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, his ambivalence is absent from what feels like a chummy hangout of bros. But as events tumble out of control, Short’s Brutus is increasingly agitated, perhaps beginning to realize he’s thrown his lot in with the wrong crowd but unwilling to call himself a villain.
Brooks Reeves creates an interesting Julius Caesar, vain and projecting an oily arrogance but not appearing to be a credible leader, on the battlefield or elsewhere. Tiffany Nicole Greene does very well with the dazzling display of rhetorical manipulation that is Antony’s funeral oratory, revealing her apparent hesitancy in an earlier scene as skillful misdirection. By play’s end, she and Juan C. Rodriguez’s almost comically haughty Octavius Caesar seem ready to rumble into a sequel, or at least into “Antony and Cleopatra.”
D’Ambrosio stages the production at one end of a rehearsal room in the Calderwood Pavilion, with the audience seated on two sides of the intimate playing space. Esme Allen’s set proposes a large pile of wooden chairs; one chair sits alone at the very top, unoccupied, perhaps suggesting a leaderless state on the verge of toppling. Stephanie Brownell’s costumes make contemporary gestures — skinny jeans abound, Brutus and Portia (Kate Paulsen) first appear as a Washington power couple — but rely largely on white shirts that remind of those verboten togas.
This “Julius Caesar” may not explore many subtleties or find new insights to occupy the seasoned Shakespeare pro. But if the Bard is usually just Greek to you, this fierce and panting production would be as good an introduction as any.
Play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston.
At: Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 30. Tickets: $40, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com