'Julius Caesar' mostly works as modern-day thriller

​Updating Shakespeare for the modern day is always a dangerous proposition. It's doubly so for Julius Caesar, which is a 400-year-old look at an event from two millennia in the past. This co-production by the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater works more often than not, even if the veneer of modern-day politics doesn't exactly fit into a story from ancient Rome.

With a set dominated by a six-panel high-definition video screen, the production recasts the story as a tense political thriller, as some of Caesar's closest confidants plan almost in plain sight to bring their beloved leader down. At its heart, we have Brutus, who broods on his path and then anguishes over his decision, all the while finding himself backed further and further into a corner.

While there are certainly parallels between the story and current Western society, the modern-day allusions -- including the Occupy movement -- don't translate all that well. The play mainly involves the one percenters who are either a part of the plot or the victim. That does not mean that director Rob Melrose and the designers haven't found some effective images. The bloodletting at the end of the first act is played out virtually, as the screens are splattered with digital blood to signify the cuts the character is taking onstage.

In the end, it comes down to the actors. William Sturdivant makes for a mostly effective Brutus, delving into the meaty character with plenty of enthusiasm and some depth as well. In the moments after killing Caesar, his voice quavers as if on the edge of a breakdown; a truly honest reaction to the event that adds plenty of sting to the actions. He finds a strong foil in Zachery Fine as Mark Anthony, especially during their dueling oratories over the dead leader's coffin. Fine delivers Anthony's famous monologue as it is a stump speech, rallying the citizens of Rome to become his troops and leading them into a white-hot rage.

Most of the rest of the company is also strong, including Bjorn DuPaty as a stately (and somewhat clueless) Julius Caesar, Sid Solomon as the conniving Cassius, and Kevin Orton as Casca, who provides a world-weary humor that doesn't hide that he is one of the main architects of the plot. Other members of the company don't do as well, seeming to have gotten to the point of making the language clear to understand, but not taking it completely to the next step and providing fully rounded characters. Kathleen Wise's stiff and unconvincing Portia, for example, does nothing to help us understand her character or her husband, Brutus.

The show also suffers in the latter half of act two. After the scene at the burial, the rest is just battles and politics, with a decided lack of drama. Even Caesar's ghost can't save it from feeling rote by the end.


Julius Caesar
Guthrie Theater Dowling Studio
818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis
Through Feb. 5
For tickets, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.

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