The Acting Company has returned to the GuthrieTheater for a fourth midwinter run at Shakespeare. The new York-based troupe launched "Henry V" in 2008 and then followed with "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Comedy of Errors." This year, "Julius Caesar" gets a shakedown cruise before going on the road.
Director Rob Melrose's production is compact, brisk and contemporary -- perfect for touring. Using a wall of video projections, set designer Neil Patel has positioned this "Caesar" in 2012, complete with news telecasts and shots of the U.S. Capitol. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers thumps the point home with lots of bass and hip-hop over scene changes. The sleek suits in Candice Donnelly's costume scheme carry the air of modern power.
Melrose's staging lands in the middle ground of success -- a workmanlike and worthy introduction to the play. He and Ian Belknap, who directed last year's fine "Comedy of Errors" for the Acting Company, have trimmed the text judiciously; the action rarely lags. No one in the young cast is overmatched, and the language most often is expressed well.
If there is a contribution to our understanding of "Caesar," it is how well the personal bond between Caesar (Bjorn DuPaty) and Brutus (William Sturdivant) declares itself. This comes primarily in Sturdivant's performance. His Brutus feels the regret of his betrayal. In a play with such epic politics, this relationship sometimes gets lost.
Otherwise, nuance largely is overpowered by shouting, with little modulation, and key moments seem to be left unexplored. Does Caesar "show a troubled mind" after returning from the crowds? Is Casca's interpretation of Calpurnia's dream really so convincing that it persuades Caesar to come to the Senate on the Ides of March? Could Mark Antony's body language find more tenderness as he renders the fallen Brutus as "the noblest Roman of them all?" Zachary Fine brings a fulsome rage to Antony's funeral oration, but we miss the manipulative levers working in his mind, the subtle coaxing of his audience. DuPaty needs more charisma as Caesar, a man whose populist skills made him one of history's first rock-star warrior/politicians.
Sid Solomon, as Cassius, has the best grasp of the text, with a precise articulation. Kevin Orton makes Casca distinct with the veneer of an old Washington pol, although this characterization sometimes affects a scene's intentions.
For newcomers, this "Caesar" brings you the play with little unnecessary business and does so in two hours -- not an unworthy feat. If you wish for something transformative, look elsewhere.