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Slightly Shaky "Caesar"

Strong performances buoy a scattered "Julius Caesar" from Richmond Shakespeare Theatre.

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The irony of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" is that it's not really about the titular Roman leader — he is killed off little more than halfway through the first act. Instead, it focuses on the complex characters who serve him and conspire against him.

The irony of Richmond Shakespeare's production is that none of the male characters, including Caesar, makes as much of an impression as the subsidiary women, thanks to a series of fiercely emotional portrayals by Terry Menefee Gau.

Her wantonly seductive Casca joins Cassius (Andrew Hamm) in persuading the gentle general Brutus (Rick Blunt) to join their murderous plot against Caesar. Gau also plays Portia, Brutus' frenetic wife, who grows hysterical when her husband shuts her out of his meetings. And finally, as the conspirators see their brief victory fall apart at the hands of a vengeful Marc Antony (Jeff Schmidt), her Titinius delivers a heartrending suicide speech.

While Gau's performances stand out, she has worthy company in this solid, occasionally stirring production. Hamm renders several contrasting characters masterfully, but it is his Cassius that really shines. Playing him slightly stooped and menacing, he bares his teeth with a near-feral thirst for Caesar's blood.

As Antony, the trusty right-hand man, Schmidt stays in the background during most of the first act but steps boldly to the fore after Caesar falls. His delivery of the famous funeral speech — "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" — expertly balances sorrow and sly sedition.

It's only in contrast to these standouts that Blunt (as Brutus) and Thomas Nowlin (who plays Caesar as well as his brother Octavius) seem a bit underwhelming. There was also a tendency among all of the cast members during the opening-night performance I saw to drop, rephrase or swallow key lines of Shakespeare's dialogue.

These lapses were compensated for by novel staging — actors roam a large church rectory with the audience flanking the action — and dramatic costuming. Designer Rebecca Cairns outfits the troupe all in black so that flashes of color distinguish specific characters and mark in striking crimson the deaths that stack up at the play's conclusion.

Some of the subtlety of the play's second act does not quite come across in this production. Antony and Brutus are noble but flawed characters; here their dual natures are writ small rather than large. But the exceptional performances of key cast members raise this "Julius Caesar" into the realm of notable Richmond Shakespeare productions of the past. S

Richmond Shakespeare Theatre's "Julius Caesar" plays at the Second Presbyterian Church, 5 N. Fifth St., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. through Oct. 28. Tickets are $24. Call (866) 227-3849 for details.

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