If you doubt whether six actors can effectively play all necessary roles in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” or whether the entire five-act play can be compacted into 90 intermissionless minutes in a small theater and still make a huge impact, look no further than African-American Shakespeare Company.
For that matter, it might seem surprising that this powerful production is directed by playwright-actor-director Michael Gene Sullivan, who’s best known for the broad political satires produced by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Sullivan sets the tragedy – about the assassination of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome by a group of conspirators – in today’s Africa. There, politicians vie for power in endless, bloody conflicts, just as they did in ancient Rome—or, as Sullivan notes in the program, in Vietnam or Iraq or anywhere else. The beat goes on.
So the performers wear jungle-camouflage fatigues, black berets, baseball caps and the like. The two Romanesque pillars on either side of the stage (which is a well-designed expanse, by Paul Riley, of gray ramps, overhanging greenery, a fire smoldering in a trashcan) are meant to represent the remains of a freeway overpass. That the characters refer to Rome, and call their machetes swords, is just fine, as is the Elizabethan English delivered in melodious African accents.
This fast-moving “Julius Caesar” crackles with tension, from the first mad, prophetic utterings of the barefoot Soothsayer — “Beware the Ides of March!” — to the bloody deaths on the battlefield at Philippi, as forewarned by Caesar’s ghost.
The ensemble, some playing multiple roles, at times spreads beyond the stage and into the house to create a palpable sense of the enraged and all-too-easily manipulated populace.
The two main conspirators make an almost comical pair: B. Chico Purdiman’s galumphing, ranting Cassius contrasts nicely with David Moore’s slender, meditative Brutus.
Moore ably reflects Brutus’ changing moods and demeanor as the tragedy unfurls. Equally commanding are L. Jeffrey Moore’s haughty, hubris-filled Caesar and Frederick Pitts’ Mark Antony, the latter more outwardly emotional and reactive in his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, and less conniving, than you might expect.
Amy Lizardo plays a boozy, loose-cannon Casca as adeptly as she does an anxious Calpurnia.
Especially impressive is Tristan Cunningham in several roles, from a hyper-alert soldier to a gentle, focused Portia, Brutus’ wife.
Sullivan, the designers and the ensemble are entirely on top of their game in this exciting, and truly tragic, “Caesar.”
Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company
Where: Buriel Clay Theater, African American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes April 1
Tickets: $10 to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006 or www.African-AmericanShakes.org