As a rule, the women are few and marginal in "Julius Caesar." Forget the rule. In this import from London's Donmar Warehouse at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse through Nov. 3, women play all the characters, including the wives. The results are gripping, eye-opening, often even revelatory.
What could have been a gimmick -- the tale's told in a women's prison -- turns out to match the toughness of Shakespeare's least poetic, most rhetorical and action-driven tragedy. Director Phyllida Lloyd, whose sensibilities span the cheerful silliness of "Mamma Mia!" to the starkly riveting 2009 revival of "Mary Stuart," creates an epic conspiratorial drama within an oppressive penal one that never descends to an alt-drag show.
Harriet Walter, a hard but womanly Elizabeth I in "Mary Stuart," rings layers of vulnerability and flint into a riveting Brutus. Frances Barber, a Caesar in a beret and prison sweats, is a tyrant with a witty cruel streak. When Caesar declares that Cassius has a "lean and hungry look," Caesar stuffs a Dunkin' Donut in this adversary's mouth like a deadly weapon.
The confidently high-concept production, which runs more than two hours without an intermission, does not need the tricked-up opening, when theatergoers are led past metal doors into lockdown. I'm not entirely convinced that the jailhouse setting expands the play. But at least we don't waste a moment wondering why women are playing men. These powerful actresses take it from there.
WHAT "Julius Caesar"
WHERE St. Ann's Warehouse, 29 Jay St., Brooklyn
INFO $50-$80; 718-254-8779; stannswarehouse.org
BOTTOM LINE Riveting all-woman Shakespeare