“Julius Caesar” won’t be generating shock waves at the Atlas Performing Arts Center — not that you want cheap topical shots or controversy for their own sake. But the lickety-split version of Shakespeare’s drama now being executed in under two hours by Scena Theatre is more drive-by than in-depth.
Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” across the hall at Atlas, on the other hand, is a three-hour sprawl. Rorschach Theatre is reviving its immersive 2013 production, but the sluggish adventure feels as if it’s getting the kind of sustained attention “Caesar” should have had.
The pocket-size “Caesar” is the bigger bafflement. Director Robert McNamara uses three video screens over the stage to set the action in modern locales (not strictly Washington), and the contemporary costumes include power suits and, for the preening Caesar, aviator shades and a sinister leather overcoat. McNamara plays Caesar as a rote autocrat, lounging and barking, but the richest character in the show is the mob.
And what about the mob? Not much more than comes hard-wired into any “Caesar”: The crowd is fickle, emotional, easily manipulated. As Mark Antony orates over Caesar’s casket, Barry McEvoy slyly lathers them up, but even this famed sequence is a thin-skinned blitz.
The show takes its stabs at style: McNamara and the politicos rhythmically march like robotic brutes in the menacing mode of British bad-boy actor-director Steven Berkoff. But there’s not much room to move on the small Lab II platform stage, and the show defaults to rapid connivance and declamation. For one of Shakespeare’s most political dramas, it’s a pretty uncontemplative staging.
The “Neverwhere” is everywhere in the flexible Sprenger Theatre, piling on the narrative froth. Gaiman’s tale, adapted by Robert Kauzlaric, sucks an ordinary Londoner (played with a casual air by Daniel Corey) into the flamboyant world of London Below, which is full of mystics and pirates, angels and assassins. Jenny McConnell Frederick’s keep-it-moving staging chases the actors up platforms, behind the audience (seated on four sides) and across the wide central stage.
Projections on the outer walls, plus the dark hollows of Cory Ryan Frank’s lighting, accentuate the sense of tunnels and warrens from designers David C. Ghatan, Robbie Hayes and Ryan Smith.
This performance seemed bracing in 2013, but a second look reveals how repetitive and cliched the script is. There may be a ripping two-hour show submerged here, one that doesn’t seem to put so much emphasis on scampering through the space and hoping the cast can sustain the “Pirates of the Caribbean”-style drollery from London Below’s cutthroats and heroes.
Much of the 2013 cast is back, including Sarah Taurchini as the avenging heroine Door and Grady Weatherford as the Johnny Depp-y Marquis de Carabas. Newcomer Megan Reichelt brings noble focus to her turn as the formidable bodyguard Hunter. At times, Reichelt even brings a sense of gravity, something you wouldn’t think a heavily visualized, verbally ornate underground saga would lack.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, video and projections, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; sound design, Denise Rose; costumes, Heather Jackson; lights, Jonathan Alexander. With Kevin Boudreau, Kim Curtis, Amanda Forstrom, David Bryan Jackson, David Johnson, Louis Lavoie, Ron Litman, Daniel Noake, Anne Nottage, Danielle Scott, Robert Sheire, Greg Ongao and Ian Blackwell Rogers. About 110 minutes. Tickets $30-$45. Through Sept. 24. At the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit atlasarts.org .
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Robert Kauzlaric. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick. Costumes, Debra Kim Sevigny and Sydney Moore; sound, Veronica J. Lancaster. With Lee Liebeskind, Cam Magee, Scott McCormick, Christian Sullivan, McCaul Baggett, Thais Menendez, Robert Pike, Robert Bowen Smith and Dina Soltan. About three hours. Tickets $20-$45. Through Oct. 1 at the Atlas.