Jack Stehlin, center, in "Julius Caesar" at the McCadden Place… (Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin )
Many scholars have argued over whether the central character in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is Caesar, the doomed dictator around whom the plot revolves, or Brutus, the chief conspirator who, after all, features in the bulk of the action after Caesar’s assassination.
In the New American Theatre’s current production at the McCadden Place Theatre, Jack Stehlin, who both directs and plays Brutus, leaves no doubt that this is very much Brutus’ play. In fact, Stehlin’s towering portrayal threatens to overshadow certain other performances.
Directorially speaking, Stehlin runs into the brick wall confronted by many American interpreters of Shakespeare, who have difficulty filling large casts with classically trained actors.
That is most obvious with the supernumerary roles. Fortunately, the crucial performances -- particularly Tom Groenwald’s bumptious Cassius and Scott Sheldon’s impassioned Mark Antony -- measure up to Stehlin’s own quietly cerebral but nonetheless chilling turn.
Stehlin’s gender-bending, bracingly contemporary staging sets a high-water mark for cogency, bristling with the rich emotional subtexts that render Shakespeare’s text all the more accessible. More importantly, Stehlin keeps the post-assassination action on the boil, neatly avoiding the pitfall of anticlimax, so often a problem with this particular play.
Part martial music, part funeral dirge, Roger Bellon’s original music is critical to the mood, as is Ron Klier’s sound design. The period friezes of Noah Silverstein’s set effectively contrast with Kitty Rose’s somber modern-day costumes.
As for Stehlin, his Brutus is a tragically well-meaning patriot misled by venal advisers and his own fanaticism. In an era in which ideology too frequently trumps common sense, Shakespeare’s sanguinary parable sounds a clarion warning against political extremism of any stripe.
“Julius Caesar,” McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Ends Oct. 21. $25. (310) 701-0788. www.NewAmericanTheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
CRITIC'S PICKS: Fall Arts Preview
TIMELINE: John Cage's Los Angeles
QUIZ: The high price of art