10/10/2013 12:50 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: All-Female "Julius Caesar" Works Except When It Doesn't

Does a week go by without a newspaper report somewhere on the subject of prisoners staging a Shakespeare play as part of their rehabilitation? Maybe not, maybe so. Whatever, director Phyllida Lloyd has appropriated the widely covered activity for an acclaimed Julius Caesar at London's Donmar Warehouse, now transported to a stateside warehouse, i. e., St. Ann's Warehouse.

The inmates and guards at this penitentiary are women and include as the inmate playing Brutus, Harriet Walter, and as the guard playing Caesar, Frances Barber--both among the most venerated English actors working regularly. Befitting the audacious Bard adaptation, designer Bunny Christie has made use of the industrial St. Ann's Warehouse amenities, and Lloyd has extended the conceit to women security guards herding the audience to their seats in groups.

Inciting patrons as the undertaking charges along, it's all in good, grim fun and works well--with one major, and I mean truly major, drawback that'll be dealt with farther down. Certainly, the opening--in which the prisoners are led into their recreation area and immediately transform into a group of reveling Roman soldiers under Caesar's command--has a high attention-grabbing quotient. Much raucous behavior ensues--a bit of it recalling the 21st-century carryings-on in the recent Othello at the National Theatre, soon to be widely screened in HD.

Once the kick-off sequence concludes with its contemporary music and very contemporary language, the tough-women swaggering continues in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. In no time Shakespeare has conspiracy-inciting Cassius (Jenny Jules) complaining to Brutus about Caesar's increasing and undeserved autonomy.

Many a modern notion does follow. As the production unfolds on two levels and on the clanging staircase joining them, various cast members snatch cameras to video the murder of Caesar. The "Ides of March"-spouting, pony-tailed Soothsayer (Carrie Rock) rides around on a tricycle with a party hat atop her head. There's a sliver of "Happy Birthday." Helen Cripps as Cinna the Poet, who's assailed by marauding citizens looking for a different Cinna, doubles on a mean drum. Danielle Ward, who appears as both Lepidus and Clitus, wields a tough electric guitar. Of course, the phrase "Five minutes to lock-up" isn't the Bard's.

Yet, Lloyd does stay close to the play as it was written over four hundred years back. And she guarantees that the cast does well with it. Perhaps they do best at approximating what a contingent of actual inmates might achieve, were they tackling Julius Caesar.

(Does that sound like damning with faint praise? It's not meant to.)

The standout performance is Walter's. Possessing an ideal Roman profile, she's a Brutus given to brooding while shoving her hands in the pockets of her slacks. In the unadorned dark-hued modern garb Christie has her in, she's a man clearly in unresolved internal debate about the validity of his decision to help murder a superior for whom he still has great regard. Walter rises to fiery declamation when she addresses the crowd, but the ire is born of Brutus's need to persuade himself as much as to persuade the madding crowd that what he and his co-conspirators have done was necessary.

This is where the besetting drawback comes into play. It involves Barber's Caesar, which has to be Lloyd's responsibility as well. This Caesar is a rowdy general, self-satisfied and abusive. In contemporary terms, he's the worse kind of bully. When he decides that succumbing to Calpurnia's begging him not to leave the house on the Ides of March is a mistake, he slaps her to the ground.

Barber's Caesar is the sort of person about whom people might easily whisper, "Good riddance to bad rubbish." The interpretation fatally backfires when Marc Antony (Cush Jumbo, and very good) appears to champion the fallen great man by way of her "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" oration. At that point, anyone who's watched Caesar acting like Ernest Borgnine menacing Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity can't help but think Marc Antony must have a screw loose to remain loyal to such a lout.

Not the best response to the action for spectators to ponder. So unfortunately, Lloyd's abundant galvanizing effects aren't enough to redeem the choice. They include Neil Austin's sound design, Tom Gibbons's lighting design, Gary Yershon's music and Kate Waters' fight direction. Hoo-boy, does Waters get plenty opportunities to do her thing!

Director Lloyd also has fun with a prison conceit built on the notion of inmates working off frustration through psychodrama. And I'm not talking here about the players who, when talking about drawing their swords, point plastic pistols. No, the funniest aside takes place during one of Walters' most demanding sequences as disillusioned Brutus. What she breaks it off to say to her convict colleagues won't be revealed here, but it's a laugh-and-a-half.