by Hugh Hunter

I have seen Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” before but never a production so riveting as the one now running at Quintessence in Mt. Airy. Paul Hebron plays a stolid Julius Caesar, a dignified man though somewhat addled and dense. The play is more about the tragedy of Brutus and the meaning of politics.

Played superbly by Michael Brusasco, Brutus stumbles blindly through tumultuous events. He has moments of weakness but always returns to high-minded honor. Brutus’ tragic flaw is that he is so in love with his own virtue he cannot see the hate, ambition and trickery at play all around him.

Director Alexander Burns appends a few scenes from other plays — a dicey tactic, but it works here. With the help of visual announcements, Burns expands the sweep of historical grandeur, beginning with the fall of Pompey, ending with Octavius in a spotlight and in this ironical suggestion: so much stormy movement, such little control.

Mary Tuomanen excels as Cassius. You never know if she loves Brutus or is merely using him, or indeed, if Cassius knows himself. Brett Ashley Robinson rises to the occasion in Mark Antony’s funeral oration, a timeless masterpiece of political manipulation.

You feel directly on the scene as Burns’ actors flood the auditorium aisles. The sound and light design (Daniel Ison and Ellen Moore) creates phenomenal dramatic momentum while the torrent of Shakespeare’s poetry flows lockstep with cascading events. It is astounding how much of it is now common language (“the dogs of war,” “it’s all Greek to me,” “constant as the northern star” and so much more).

Almost in passing, Shakespeare creates a bleak vision of political life. Julius Caesar is an ambitious, uninspired victim. Aristocrats conspire for personal advantage, seek idealistic argument for cover. The common folk are just comically ignorant, swayed first by Brutus, then by Mark Anthony. Then the mob pours into the streets and murders an innocent man.

“Julius Caesar” is not a closet drama. Written at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, fear and trembling was in the air. The “ins” were about to become the “outs,” and the outs would be lucky to keep their heads. Bestial civil war was a clear possibility, and the Elizabethan audience knew what was on the table.

We know what is on the table too. Shakespeare’s sobering pessimism as to “politicians” and politics is all too recognizable. An envisioned political ideal, in this case Republican Rome, is unreachable. The one noble character, Brutus, is flawed and ineffectual while everyone else is manipulative or self-deceived.

You cannot watch the show and not think of America’s current political malaise. But the meaning of “Julius Caesar,” especially in the Quintessence production, is universal and too grand to be restricted to our own pitiable affairs.

Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Julius Caesar” will run through April 28. Tickets and other information are available at 215-987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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