Pure Will

Julius Caesar Directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb At the Boston Shakespeare company through May 21

THE MOST STRIKING theatrical effect in the Boston Shakespeare Company's current production of Julius Caesar is one that Shakespeare put there himself. In Act III, when Caesar's rebellious lieutenants have stabbed him to death. Brutus proposes a symbolic gesture over the body.

Stoop, Romans, stoop

And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood

Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords

Then walk we forth even to the market place.

And waving our red weapons over our heads.

Let's all cry. Peace freedom, and liberty.

So they do. Their dripping, sticky hands shine under the dull purple stage lights, coloring the rest of the scene--as the assassins proclaim their innocence and lofty motive to the populace--in lurid ironies.

The scene and the production, work for a simple and well-precedented reason--lack of interference. In the last year or so the BSC has done a fair amount of experimenting with the different ways a director can mangle a script in the interests of originally; their director's Romeo and Juliet was set mysteriously and superfluously in modern-day Belfast, and Bill Coe's Memlet offered the truly creative line-reading "To be, or not?... To be!" But now the fever seems to have broken. Caesar, which will run repertory with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, demonstrates the virtues of an almost lost art: the straight reading. Unaffected period costumes, a simple Roman-looking set, and very alert casting give the audience a secure sense of a play with dynamism and direction.

Any director tackling Caesar must contend with the plot's most frequently criticized peculiarity--the apparent central character disappears two acts before final curtain, leaving the focus of the play where it has been hovering all along, on Brutus. Director Gavin Cameron-Webb clearly follows this school and gives it an extra push; Joe Gargiulo as Caesar is almost a caricature, stiff and monarchical with a booming voice. He flat-out yells a good portion of his lines, but the exaggeration seems called for: it fits the mood.

Brutus, by contast, comes across very much as the brooding, thoughful central figure--an "honorable man" caught between considered morality and bold, heroic action. James Finnegan consistently understates Brutus's tension and growing disillusion at the havoc his revolutionary act has brought. Only an occasional flush, as he runs his fingers through thick curly hair or lets a nerve flicker in the corner of his mouth, reveals the turmoil written into the character.

OTHER DETAILS are handled in equally open-eyed fashion. Carter Reardon as Cassius, the driving force behind the conspiracy to kill Caesar, looks properly "lean and hungry." More than in many productions of Shakespeare, thought is given to differentiating the subordinate female characters; Brutus's wife Portia (Crystal Miller) is tiny, delicate-looking, with a voice of steel, while the more ineffectual Calpurnia (Melinda McCrary) has a habit of turning back and forth to the various characters on stage, as if entreating them to listen to her. And when Caesar's ghost walks across the stage to warn Brutus of impending doom--an effect which, like the ghost scene in Hamlet, tends to inspire the most ridiculous devices imaginable from directors afraid of seeming naive--Cameron-Webb manages to achieve total straightforwardness. A panel of the Capitol slides up, revealing a blue-scrim sky, and the silhouetted monarch simply walks across it, stops, speaks, and continues on his way. The audience's chills are real.

The real beneficiary of this direct approach, of course, is Henry Woronicz as Mark Antony, whose orations over the dead Caesar--not just the famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen," but the Machiavellian masterpieces that follow--provide a classic example of words that don't need stagecraft to make them work. True, the otherwise subtle lighting design turns a bit blatant for the great funeral speech, dropping to a single spotlight as soon as Antony begins to speak, spectators' yells coming out of the near-pitch dark. Even that tactic, though, carries a certain ingenuous charm; why shouldn't Woronicz and director Cameron-Webb admit they're enjoying playing this scene? Anyone who studied the play in high school and whispered the lines to himself is likely to sympathize.

After an all-too-obvious identity crisis and a period of physical confusion--occasioned by the move this fall from near Symphony Hall to the wilds of St. Botolph Street--the BSC appears to have come home just in time to face a new adjustment. Peter Sellars '80, not hitherto known for sticking exactly to original milieus, will take over the company's directorship after the current season ends; whatever his plans, though, he is fortunate to be meeting up with a group whose feet, at long last, seem to have regained contact with the theatrical ground. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar appears, at the very least, to know where it is. And, as everyone knows, it's a lot easier from there to figure out where you're going.