By Colin Dabkowski
7/26/09

Friday night’s weather was perfect for murder. After the latest in a relentless series of rainy evenings forced the cancellation of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s opening performance of “Julius Caesar” on Thursday, fortune smiled on the resilient company and blessed the bloody production with dry skies and a cool breeze.

All the better to witness an engrossing if slightly redacted performance of the play that incites so much fascination among certain American high school students and so many naps among others.

Be assured that there wasn’t a heavy eyelid on Shakespeare Hill as Steve Vaughan’s swift, muscular and confident production strutted its two hours and 15 minutes upon the stage. Vaughan promised audiences a streamlined and forceful production of Shakespeare’s popular tragedy, and on those accounts delivered a rousing success.

Shakespeare’s accounting of the great Roman dictator’s violent assassination and its equally brutal aftermath is rife with lessons that can’t help but seem applicable to the recent political history of this country and embattled regions the world over. The play is packed with hard-learned lessons on the dangers of absolute power, the destructive potential of jealousy and the challenges of preserving one’s rectitude amid base and violent surroundings.

At the center of “Caesar” is not the dictator himself, but Marcus Brutus (Doug Zschiegner), a friend and confidant to the ruler woefully conflicted over how to quash his emperor’s tyrannical ambitions. Brutus, the original frenemy, eventually joins the conspirators, led by the spiteful Cassius (Tim Newell).

After the assassination, Caesar loyalist Marc Antony (Adriano Gatto) lets slip the dogs of war, valiant men drop like flies, and thus the Roman Republic falls in on itself like a house of cards.

As Brutus, a man “with himself at war,” Zschiegner exudes a soft air of confidence, adopting an understanding tone in his heated conversations with Cassius.

Newell, as Cassius, proves yet again why he is the go-to choice to portray Shakespeare’s vengeful and insecure characters. Newell deftly swings between the poles of outrage and tenderness in his exchanges with Zschiegner, at points sounding like a jilted lover longing for comfort.

Dan Walker lives up to his 6 foot 5 stature as Caesar, whom he plays with a delicious blend of braggadocio and affability. As Portia, the lovely Diane DiBernardo glimmers, as do the campy David Bondrow as the devious Decius Brutus and sarcasm-ridden Larry Smith as Casca.

Period costumes by Ken Shaw are excellent, as is the spare set by Ron Schwartz and effective lighting by Christopher Cavanagh. As usual, Tom Makar’s sound design deserves special mention for its borderline-campy use of screeching strings and other horror film-worthy effects during scenes of imminent violence.

Like many directors who fashion Shakespeare’s scripts for mass consumption in the great outdoors, Vaughan cut some exchanges that help tangentially to fill out the background of the production but are largely extraneous to the action.

Such cuts mean the play has gained speed occasionally at the expense of subtlety. But the tradeoff, in a production engineered to pack a pointed emotional and intellectual wallop, is well-justified.