A Noise Within's new production of "Julius Caesar" has plenty of style. Or rather, plenty of styles: bold but random design elements that compete for attention with the substance.
The story is set on a contemporary construction site (designed by Frederica Nascimento), where characters leap among the platforms of giant wheeled scaffolds hung with plastic tarps.
The leaping seems especially risky since costume designer Angela Balogh Calin has dressed the entire cast in identical dark, floor-length coats. She accessorizes these mysterious garments with diverse headgear: knitted skullcaps, top hats, World War II army caps.
Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott open their ambitious, frequently entertaining production with a meta-theatrical flourish: Cast members thunder onto the set from the aisles, shouting lines, then pause to display cardboard rectangles bearing their characters' names. "Don't worry," they seem to be reassuring us. "We know that this old play is over-the-top, and we're going to do it in a fun, kitschy way. You won't have to get emotionally involved."
Maybe it's not possible to play "Julius Caesar" straight; maybe even in Shakespeare's time it was a gory, guilty pleasure. Mark Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech has long been admired as a masterpiece of rhetorical irony, but it's not particularly subtle. A child could figure out how Antony is working the crowd, which responds like clockwork (and in unison) to the twists and turns of his cunning.
Here, Antony (Rafael Goldstein) climbs into the cab of a Genie aerial work platform and raises and lowers himself to comic effect. He's playing the scene for laughs, we conclude, and we chuckle knowingly as he turns the susceptible populace into his puppets.
Then something magical happens: The language is so transparent and powerful, and Goldstein is such a compelling performer--he makes Antony's struggle between emotion and guile palpable--that substance trumps style for a moment. We get invested.
It's a transformation that ought to happen more often than it does in this production, which boasts several other strong and subtle performers: Robertson Dean makes an appealing, intelligent Brutus, and Deborah Strang persuasively turns Casca into that bitter woman in every workplace who gripes about the boss during cigarette breaks.
Patrick O'Connell, who bears a striking resemblance to busts of the historical Julius Caesar, plays the general as a slightly dim egotist and becomes really ghoulish in his afterlife cameos.
But all of the performances are hampered by the directors' decision not to honor any "asides" in the script: Conversations and comments intended to be private--overheard only by the audience--take place in the open. So Caesar complains about the "lean and hungry look" of "yon Cassius" (Freddy Douglas) right to Cassius' face; and when Mark Antony, while pledging his allegiance to the conspirators, pauses to explain to Caesar's corpse that he's just tricking them, he doesn't even lower his voice. Such choices make the characters feel more remote and implausible.
The stabbing scene is so stylized, drenched in Ken Booth's blood-tinged lighting, that it verges on parody. Ultimately this lively but scattershot production, instead of bringing "Julius Caesar" back to life, buries the play deeper in the sands of time.
"Julius Caesar," A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. In repertory; see website for schedule. Ends May 8. $40. (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1, or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.