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Shakespeare fest showcases powerful 'Julius Caesar'

WINONA — Perhaps the most interesting way to take in the Great River Shakespeare Festival is to see this year's two Shakespeare offerings back-to-back on consecutive days.

The comedy "As You Like It" is rotating with the tragedy "Julius Caesar," providing contrasting productions. Be forewarned, however: It's a marathon, with each play clocking in at three hours in length.

"As You Like It," one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, comes off second-best to "Julius Caesar," a powerful drama with much to say about honor, and full of with familiar monologues and phrases. By comparison, "As You Like It," albeit witty and entertaining, feels like a trifle.

Some observations on both productions:

— The costuming for "Julius Caesar," directed by James Edmonson, posits the play in the 1940s or 1950s. But it can be a problem when you set Shakespeare in modern times. In this case, there's the incongruity of military men in 20th century battle dress going into a fight armed only with daggers from the Roman era.

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— Strong performances by John Maltese as Brutus, Benjamin Boucvalt as Caius Cassius and Jason Rojas as Marc Antony highlight "Caesar" and account for many of the play's most riveting moments. Rojas, in particular, is spellbinding as he portrays Antony as a master manipulator of crowds — "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears."

— Even those who don't know Shakespeare well are likely to be familiar with the circumstances of Caesar's murder. Be assured the Great River festival's staging of the event is gruesome and bloody. In fact, stagehands spent most of the subsequent intermission mopping and scrubbing spilled red liquid from the set.

— It always pays to attend the pre-performance talks at the festival. Before "Julius Caesar" took the stage, it was pointed out that, had Brutus and Caesar both listened to their wives on that fateful day, the murder, and all that followed, might not have taken place. Keep that in mind as you view the play.

— Tarah Flanagan, in her 10th year at the festival, absolutely owns the second half of "As You Like It." As Rosalind, Flanagan takes a somewhat pedestrian show, and turns up the energy, turns on the charm, and brings the audience on board. In this, she is aided and abetted by Robert Adelman Hancock, who takes the role of Touchstone, the joker, as far as he possibly can.

— There is so much wordplay in "As You Like It," that it sometimes feels as if Shakespeare was showing off his facility with language rather than moving a story forward.

— This production, directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson, is dressed up with costumes and song arrangements that have an Eastern European flavor. The women's costumes are especially colorful.

— "As You Like It" features music composed by Jack Herrick. The lovely, folk-like melodies benefit greatly from the enchanting voice of Ana Marcu, who is making her festival debut this season.

— Boucvault, mentioned earlier as a major character in "Julius Caesar," also has one of the big roles in "As You Like It." Talk about stamina.

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Finally, make sure to pick up the printed handouts that are available before each performance. The guides, which list characters and their relationships to each other (along with photos for easy identification), as well as interesting tidbits about the plays, will greatly enhance your experience at the Great River Shakespeare Festival.

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