Using a cast of seven to present Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," a play with dozens of characters, unquestionably requires a lot of the actors. At Orlando Shakespeare Theater, director Tina Packer also expects a lot of her audience. Actors change roles by merely adjusting a hood, background performers pull attention away from a scene's primary characters.

The intimate production feels a bit uncomfortable in its own skin: Is it a stripped-down take on the classic play? Or is it a high-concept, performance-art interpretation? This "Caesar" has elements of both. And those two facets of the production don't always play well together.

Packer, founder of the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company troupe, keeps her cast busy. There's not much time to switch characters so the actors often change on stage, by simply adding a sash or beret. Therefore Kristina Tollefson's costumes, reminiscent of latter-day Star Trek uniforms, are utilitarian.

Ryan McGettigan's simple scenic design niftily uses mesh hangings to evoke Roman columns. But when the actors aren't portraying noble Romans, they also become part of the scenery — or contribute to the sound design. When a story is told about the River Tiber, actors become undulating waves, bathed in blue light.

When Brutus talks of an adder, actors hiss like a snake. The ensemble gasps to underscore a mention of death.

Sometimes these conceits are effective — that River Tiber effect, with Eric T. Haugen's lighting design, is striking. But just as often they distract. Such additions border on irritating by the time cast members are growling, on all fours in front of actor Esau Pritchett as he masterfully delivers Mark Antony's "dogs of war" speech over their noise.

By adding this busyness to her staging, Packer seems to have been worried that her actors couldn't hold theatergoers' attention on their own. But these actors can — and do — keep the audience involved.

Pritchett strikes a commanding presence in the famed monologues, including "Friends, Romans, countrymen." His Mark Antony is palpably grieving the death of Caesar, while his anger expressively simmers right under the surface. Pritchett's voice is sweet as honey — but the audience feels the sting — as he riles the citizens of Rome by repeatedly describing Caesar's assassins as "honorable men."

Paul Bernardo gives Brutus needed complexity. A friend to Caesar, Brutus is persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy to kill the ruler for the good of the country. Jason Asprey's Cassius is heartfelt in his belief that Caesar will destroy Rome's democracy and smartly avoids falling into the trap of facile villainy.

But Brutus's struggle with his conscience — should he betray a friend for a higher purpose? — is still the heart of the story. Even among the odd artistic flourishes, that struggle remains powerfully reflected both in Bernardo's tormented face and the cracking of his weary voice.

'Julius Caesar'

What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of Shakespeare's drama

Length: 2:25, including intermission

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, through April 20

Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando

Tickets: $17-$40, with discounts for students and military personnel

Call: 407-447-1700

Online: orlandoshakes.org