Friday, August 31, 2018

"Caesar Maximus"


Caesar Maximus
William Shakespeare

The Cast of Circus Maximus
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 Ava Roy in a We Players adaptation entitled Caesar Maximus.  In the opening scene, audience members join joyous citizens of Rome around the fountain of Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse in a festival and parade to celebrate Lupercalia and the victory of Julius over political rival Pompey.  As musicians and a juggler entertain and games of tug-of-war and the like occur in the surrounding fields, these Romans cheer insanely in support of Caesar and increasingly insist she become king. 

These same citizens that later at first weep for a slain Caesar will be quickly persuaded by the turncoat Brutus that Caesar’s murder was justified.  Minutes later, Mark Anthony will arouse the fury of the crowd, convincing them that Brutus and the insurgents are actually notorious 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 — take on new, disturbing, and foreboding meanings in 2018 America, once again proving the timelessness of the Bard’s writings.  That is especially true when one considers the current rise in hate crimes across America as we watch an innocent poet named Cinna (Zoltan DiBartolo) attacked and brutally killed by a passing mob just because his name is too much like one of Caesar’s assassins.

While the vast setting of the We Players production is present-day Golden Gate Park (with curious by-passers pausing to take IPhone pics of the goings-on) and while the cast are dressed in a kind of circus, Vaudeville mix of costumes one might have seen in the early 20th Century (all imaginatively designed by Brooke Jennings), this cast delivers with great skill and spot-on interpretation the same, revered lines of the Bard that have served the classic tale well for centuries. 

Emily Stone
But unlike most productions of the past, we as audience do not just sit and watch the action of a stage before us.  In typical We Players fashion, we wander around the grounds and near-by tunnels of the Music Concourse, led by a guide (Emily Stone) who also serves as narrator and the haunting Soothsayer who warns Caesar of the Ides of March in a shrill screech that sends chills down all necks.  As we move from one scene to the next, we often see players afar in all directions of the park, usually alone and in their own worlds of contemplation, reveling, plotting, mourning, or whatever fits the current section of the story.  Sometimes we are merely observers.  At other times, we are part of the crowd of turncoats who cheer first for Caesar, then Brutus, and finally Anthony.

Libby Oberlin
As most high school students know, the Caesar of the play’s title is not at all who or what the play is about at its core; and that character actually has a relatively early demise in the play.  But in this production, our Caesar -- Libby Oberlin -- makes and leaves a lasting impression as a big-smiling, brassy, bold Caesar who dresses in knee-high boots, carries a small whip, and plays always to the crowd of admirers in full swagger.  With snide smirk overflowing with an air of superiority, she mocks Cassius in front of the gathered crowd for his “lean and hungry look.”  She revels in the crowd’s cheers as she mounts a throne on a float her followers parade about (designed with flair by Edward T. Morris).  And when she later delivers the oft-quoted lines of “Cowards die many times,” she spits out the words with a confidence that has an air of saying to the world ‘I dare you to consider harming me of all people.’ 

Scott MacNair
Ms. Oberlin’s stellar performance is just one of several that hit the target in this open-air, very public setting.  Chief among these is Caius Cassius, the ringleader of the conspirators.  Hunter Scott MacNair exudes nervous tension and an edginess that prohibits his standing still for more than a few seconds as he hammers away at Brutus to join in over-throwing Caesar.  His venom finds its target step-by-step in an initially reluctant Brutus.  With eyes demonically red and a neck that increasingly matches the same hue, he is like the serpent at Eden’s apple tree, putting ideas into the mind of Brutus who has the stature and power to give his deadly plot final and full legitimacy.

Joseph Schommer
As Marcus Brutus, Joseph Schommer is tempered and deeply contemplative but also clearly tortured in his thinking and deliberation of what to do about the signs in his beloved Caesar that trouble him.  He speaks with some agony in voice and with increasing resolve as he makes 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.

Chris Steele
Also memorable in performance is Chris Steele as Casca, a roaming, always smiling reporter who constantly records what others are saying (including audience members he interviews in the opening festival).  He has the manner of a gossip as he talks to his fellow conspirators, Cassius and Brutus, and often cackles almost wildly through his toothy grin, usually at times when laughing does not seem that appropriate.  Full of many feats of facial gymnastics, Mr. Steele is a delight as the evil but likable Casca.

Libby Oberlin & Lauren Hayes
While few in number and few lines allotted them by Shakespeare, the women of the production (that is, those who play traditional female parts) leave their lasting impressions.  As Portia, Britt Lauer’s fingers stiffen as do the veins in her neck as she pleads with her husband Brutus in a look of deadly fright not to join the conspirators.  As Calpurnia, Lauren Hayes is at first the trophy wife of Julius Caesar who flaunts all she has for her wife and for the cheering crowds; but when she hears and consults with the Soothsayer, she becomes ghostly in her appearance as she clearly senses with all her being the upcoming doom of her wife.  After the assassination, she remains in the background for several scenes, going into silent, weeping spasms in a huddled mound on the Senate steps.  Watching her becomes a mini-scene of sorrow and regret all to itself.

One of the touches of Director Ava Roy that works best is the use of pauses in action – periods when characters retreat to far off parts while we are left to contemplate the lines we have just heard.   At other times, we walk in silence as we pass frozen, statue-like bodies with heads covered in red silk, allowing us more time to consider the events just past and the ones we know are coming next.   Ghosts and legacies of the past deeds also play major, background parts as the acts count away in shadowy ways haunting and beautiful – more of Ava Roy’s artistic touches that add meaning to the powerful script.

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.  We Players provides us an immersive experience of Caesar Maximus that becomes full of wake-up warning, packed with implied questions we each need to consider critically as we read tomorrow’s headlines or tonight’s Tweets.

Rating: 5 E

Caesar Maximus continues through September 30, 2018 at the Music Concourse, Golden Gate Park.  Tickets are available online at www.weplayers.org.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

"Native Gardens"


Native Gardens
Karen Zacarías


Jackson Davis, Amy Resnick, Michael Evans Lopez & Marlene Martinez
President Trump has his border issues and fence dreams, but the ignition of accusations and counter-accusations that he has inflamed pale in comparison to the increasing tensions between the Butleys and Del Valles, two sets of neighbors who have just met while amiably sipping wine and eating chocolate.  Karen Zacarías has seized a national moment with her Native Gardens, touted in its pre-marketing as “a cutting-hedge comedy.”  After its 2016 world premiere at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the play has opened in a dozen major theatres across the land and is now in its regional premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.  

Please proceed to Talkin' Broadway for my full review: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj132.html.


Rating:  3.5 E

Native Gardens continues through September 16, 2018 at at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne