Friday, April 22, 2011

ASF: "Julius Caesar"

Knowledge of Roman history -- especially in reference to Julius Caesar -- relies for many people on Shakespeare's dramatization of his assassination and its aftermath. From school studies on, they can quote short passages from the play: Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." for example.

But, while Shakespeare's version of history isn't completely accurate, he does tell a good story with a lot of rhetorical bombast meant to rile up his audiences against the threat of tyranny and the self-aggrandisement of individuals who drag down "government by the people" in the guise of restoring it to health. A play about loyalty, patriotism, and friendship, Julius Caesar is set in Ancient Rome, but sounds like today's headlines -- evidence of its universal appeal.

Hats off to ASF director Geoffrey Sherman who dresses his actors in togas, allowing the words to speak for themselves instead of imposing some modern dress concept as an attempt to make it relevant. -- It is Shakespeare's words produced by expert actors that carry the power of this production. Familiar as many of the speeches are, the words resonate freshly from the mouths of the cast.

Audiences are encouraged to participate in chanting dialogue as the crowd of Roman citizens, calling for "Caesar...Caesar" on his triumphant return to Rome, and "We will be satisfied..." when conditions change. -- This technique [evidence exists that Elizabethan audiences often called out during performances] did engage some of the audience, though at times it interfered with hearing important words or seeing important stage action.

Caesar [Rodney Clark] enters to overwhelming support from the crowd, but is immediatley warned by a Soothsayer [Greta Lambert makes the most of a small pivotal role and masterfully portrays the character and speaks the words brilliantly] to beware the Ides of March, and it is clear that some people -- Cassius [Thom Rivera] and Brutus [Stephen Paul Johnson] -- are not celebrating as much as the others, fearing that Caesar wants to be an absolute ruler, and causing a conflict between their fears and their admiration for Caesar. Meanwhile, Antony [Peter Simon Hilton] is ever faithful to his friend and his country.

As the conspirators plot Caesar's assassination, leaving Antony out, there are several incidents that test their mettle and their beliefs. Prophecies and dreams are, from the beginning, very significant elements in the plot and behavior, and it is the concerns of Caesar's and Brutus's wives that make up much of the human responses to the events. Brutus's wife Portia [Jenny Mercein] provides a telling insight, and Caesar's wife Calphurnia [Tara Herweg] gives warning with an honest sensibility.

The assassination at the end of Act I is sufficiently bloody for any modern taste, and though Caesar is absent from then on [except as he returns as a ghost in Act II], Mr. Clark's presence is so strong that one can believe he is there. -- So, it is Brutus who demands attention from then on, becoming the central character; and it is his dilemma, his questioning of his own patriotism, whether his participation in Caesar's death was justified, and what is to become of Rome now, is the focus of attention.

The famous debate between Antony and Brutus pits two rhetoriticians against one another, and it is to the credit of both Mr. Hilton and Mr. Johnson that each man's testimony seems completely honest. Shakespeare's speeches for each are in dynamic contrast and utilize tested persuasive techniques to sway their audiences. And how good it is for us to hear the words with such clarity and passion.

The "triumverate": Antony, Octavius [Corey Triplett] and Lepidus [Erik Gullberg] maneouver for power and eliminate most of the conspirators at the Battle of Philipi. And Brutus, by now resigned to his fate and anguished over his participation in killing Caesar, falls on his sword, becoming in Antony's words "the noblest Roman of them all".