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PTC’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is first-rate

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Ross Bickell, left, is Caesar and Deidre Madigan is Calpurnia in PTC's production of "Julius Caesar."

Ross Bickell, left, is Caesar and Deidre Madigan is Calpurnia in PTC’s production of “Julius Caesar.”

Mark Diorio, Deseret Morning News

"JULIUS CAESAR," PIONEER THEATRE COMPANY, Pioneer Memorial Theatre, University of Utah, through March 4 (581-6961). Running time: two hours, 20 minutes (one intermission).

You can't say Caesar wasn't warned.

First the seer told him, "Beware the Ides of March." Unfortunately, she was dressed as a bag lady and he as a general. Easy enough to see why he discounted her.

Then his wife had a dream. Calpurnia begged Caesar so sincerely not to go to the Senate. But then the men in suits showed up, and she was just in her bathrobe and they were talking about a crown.

Calpurnia didn't say another word. Clearly, a group of men wouldn't listen to a woman — much less a woman in a nightie.

Pioneer Theatre Company's production is directed by Charles Morey. This is a strong "Julius Caesar." It's well-acted, and the set design is simple and compelling. (We see a row of columns supporting a large stone wall, and the wall is cracked; dangerously cracked.)

Yet even more than the acting and the set and the bold lighting and the video clips of war, the costumes elevate this production. Shakespeare's words resonate in a new way because the costumes are classic enough to imply anything.

Watching it, you feel you could be the 1940s, or '60s or sometime in the future. You could be in Central America, Greece or Washington, D.C.

Susan Branch designed the costumes; Gary English did the set; Thomas Munn did lighting.

Ross Bickell is Caesar, nicely transparent in his lust for power. Kurt Zischke is Brutus, perhaps older than you imagined him, but with the best phony smile you've ever seen. Mark Elliott Wilson gives us an easily understood Cassius, with piercing eyes.

Lawrence Wayne Ballard's Mark Anthony is sometimes too soft-spoken, but his funeral oration is first-rate. Ballard gives us all the nuances. He seems to sense the irony when his listeners are so easily swayed. He seems secretly amused when they get so excited over what they've been left in Ceasar's will.

If you've always thought this play bogs down in the battle scenes, you'll be grateful for the snappiness of Morey's version. Zischke/Brutus gives us one of the nicest moments in the production when Caesar's bloody ghost appears to tell him they will meet the next day. Zischke screams a challenge right back to the ghost.

He makes you realize Brutus has succumbed to the same arrogance that felled Caesar. He makes you despair, actually.

The theater was quite empty on opening night. Perhaps the snow kept people away. You have to believe the word will get out among the students, and when they come — all those English majors and political-science majors — they will have already seen Julius Caesar done in togas. And they'll enjoy this production all the more.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com