Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"Julius Caesar": Day 3, Play 4, TheatreEddys at OSF Ashland 2017

Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare

For anyone wondering how an electorate can switch in such a short time from electing an Obama to choosing a Trump, a re-visit of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar may send chills up the spine, especially as now being brilliantly directed by Shana Cooper at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  In the opening scene, a group of wild, ruffian, half-dressed citizens of Rome in frozen-faced masks are urged by two tribunes, Marullus and Flavius, to overflow the Tiber with their tears, weeping for fallen Pompey who has just been conquered by Julius Caesar.  These same citizens will soon be cheering insanely for Caesar and insisting he become king.  They will be later first be persuaded by Brutus that Caesar’s murder was justified and then immediately by Mark Anthony that the insurgents are assassins, now deserving revolt and death themselves.  These quick, 180-degree turns in public opinion — present in one of Shakespeare’s most-read, most-loved plays these past four centuries — now take on new, disturbing, and foreboding meanings in 2017 America, once again proving the timelessness of the Bard’s writings.  That is especially true when one considers current rise in hate crimes since November 2016 as we watch an innocent poet name Cinna attacked and brutally killed by a passing mob just because his name is too near one of Caesar’s assassins. 

Those currently protesting the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar because Caesar and his wife, Calphurnia, resemble a certain blonde-haired President and his fashionable First Lady clearly have not read or seen the play since high school, if ever.  That someone would think that this is a play advocating assassination of the head of state is ludicrous, as the OSF production so clearly illustrates.  The very setting as designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer is of flimsy, sheet-rock panels that make up the walls of the Forum — walls that are full of holes and that continue to fall into easy destruction as the play progresses.  This is an empire collapsing on itself with the uprising against its leader as Shakespeare’s script, the lighting design of Raquel Barrett, and the sound design of Paul James Prendergast all highlight with strange and fierce storms raging, faces of frightened citizens and senators alike lit ghastly and ghostly, and streaks of blood red clouds crossing the sky.

The power of this production is that the well-known-to-most lines of the famous play — many of which have made their ways into our everyday parlance — are delivered in contexts, tones, and manners to give them new life and meaning.  A good example is the famous speech by Mark Anthony over the draped and bloody body of the slain Caesar.  From the moment Jordan Barbour’s Mark Anthony enters and first looks in a frozen state at his beloved leader’s body with a look so stunned and grieved, it is clear we are about to hear a speech for the ages.  So angry is he that he can barely breathe as he begins his “Friends, Romans, and countrymen” — the last word spit in loud fury.  As he recounts his carefully worded version of Caesar’s life accomplishments and Caesar’s love of Roman citizens, he returns to his frequent references of ‘noble Brutus’ with his voice increasingly resembling the edge of a revengeful knife.  His cadence alternates between a Southern minister and a fiery Bernie Sanders, whipping up the shifting mob to revolutionary action that he has already planned with purpose.  His well-timed variance of volume, pace, demeanor, and overall delivery is remarkable; and the result for someone like myself who has seen this play multiple times is to come away feeling I finally saw the speech for the first time in the way Shakespeare must have meant it delivered.

Multiple other outstanding performances are given by this cast — performances that each bring a unique perspective to much-played, much-seen parts undertaken by so many before them.  Chief among these is Rodney Gardiner as Caius Cassius, ringleader of the conspirators.  With a face intensely wrinkled and eyes set so deep that they are almost unseen, he tempts Brutus with suggestions of tyranny in their first meeting with a voice that borders on a local mobster from a shady neighborhood.  His venom finds its target slowly, and he skillfully manipulates Brutus to his side.  His quick temper and rash movements of voice and body make him much more threatening and demonic than his small stature would imply.  He is like the serpent at the Eden’s apple tree, putting ideas into the mind of Brutus who has the stature and  power to give the plot final legitimacy.

As Marcus Brutus, Danforth Comins is tempered, level-headed, but tortured in his thinking and deliberation of what to do about the signs in his beloved Caesar that deeply trouble him.  He speaks with some agony in voice and increasing resolve as he tell us, the audience, of the decision that is firming up in his mind to join the conspirators.  That inner battle and sense of lingering doubt never quite leaves him, even up until that final knife plunge he makes into Caesar.   The terrified, horrified look on this face when he hears “Et tu, Brute” is one haunting to behold. 

Another spine-chilling performance is given by Stephen Michael Spencer as the conspirator Caska.  Like some current people on either of the far sides of the political spectrum, when we meet him we hear in his animated, fired-up voice and see in his demeanor a man who has long made up his mind and now is so full of pre-set prejudice that assures any new facts or arguments fall unheard by his deaf ears.  

While few in number and with few lines or time on stage, the women of this production leave their memorable marks.  Kate Hurster is stunning as the concerned, frightened wife of Brutus who clearly has inner visions of her own and his fated demises.  Likewise, Calphurnia (Amy Kim Waschke) is visually desperate with fear and foreboding while still clearly full of love for her Caesar as she pleads with him not to go to the Senate on this, the Ides of March.  Later, the director’s choice is brilliant to have her shocked, stormy yet stoic public presence on the funeral’s platform as Brutus gives his speech.  Her silent stare is a soliloquy to be long remembered.

Entering waving both arms like Richard Nixon with his “veed” fingers in the air, Armando Duran as Julius Caesar has an old, tired look to him but also dons an air quick to mock nearby Cassius in a tone of snide superiority.  Later when he speaks intimately to his wife lines that every school child must at some point memorize and recite (“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once”), he masterfully does so naturally and with a sense both of every day discourse and of a knowing premonition of his fate.  

There is a contemporary feel throughout this OSF production not only due to its audience making links to present-day headlines and Tweets, but also because of Raquel Barreto’s modern-day dressing of the cast and of the manner the director and the choreographer (Ericka Chong Shuch) have chosen to convey the play’s climatic battles.  Approaches of armies, attacks, and slayings all occur with a sound track created by the coordinated stomping of boots, of claps, and of slaps made to chests and arms.  Soldiers fall as part of a deadly ballet, only to rise again, perhaps switch sides, and fight in a dance until they die yet another time.  The symbolism of armies that fall and rise to fall again on the battlefields that are created by the egos and conflicts of a few men at the top is powerful.  That these battles happened thousands of years ago and still continue today is viscerally clear as we watch troops in modern camouflage with faces painted as often soldiers do to reduce their face shine while in conflict.

A play written so long ago about an event and time even further back in history is today a wake-up call for the modern audience.  Democracy based on public opinion and vote is not an automatic path to being a great or sustained nation.  Leaders and citizens alike must be diligent in whom to believe and in how their opinions are formed.  Tyranny is always possible, but so is nobility.  The choice becomes ours.  Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Director Shana Cooper, and this stellar cast and creative team give us a Julius Caesar full of wake-up warning and packed with questions we each need to consider critically as we read tomorrow’s headlines or tonight’s Tweets.

Rating: 5 E

Photo by Jenny Grahan

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