Julius Caesar, dir. Danielle Irvine, September 1, 2019 at Perchance Theatre at Cupids (NL)
Reviewed by Tracy O’Brien
Director Danielle Irvine had no shortage of real-world inspiration on which to draw for Perchance Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar this summer. In an era dominated by “fake news” and social media, it is easy to forget that political conspiracy and upheaval have been influenced by fear and rumor for thousands of years.
Irvine forgoes the common practice of many directors to adapt Shakespeare’s plays using modern settings or costumes. Her decision to transport viewers to 44 B.C. Rome, represented by faux-stone emblems mounted on the stage, draperies, togas, swords and shields, has the effect of underscoring how the needs and desires of the general public have been manipulated by political leaders for millennia. Brutus (Steve O’Connell) is well loved by the Romans and is an impressive speaker who implores the people to be patient and to understand that Caesar (Owen Van Houten) would have become a tyrannical leader. He cannot, however, compete with Mark Antony (Paul Wilson) who sways public opinion against the conspirators by praising Caesar’s good works and generosity. Brutus presents a logical argument, while Antony plays on the public’s emotion, growing anti-elitism and the promise of future wealth for all people. Two thousand years after the real-world events on which this play is based, we still grapple with matters of political corruption, economic disparity and violence. Shakespeare’s four hundred year old text is replete with language and circumstances that encapsulate modern day social and political conditions. Irvine capitalizes on how little political rhetoric and strategy have evolved across the three time periods.
This is also a play about relationships and loyalty: Caesar and Antony versus Brutus and Cassius (Bridget Wareham), Caesar versus the Senate, and everyone vying for the support of the Roman people.
Wareham delivers a powerful Cassius. She is commanding, convincing and absolutely staunch in her commitment to persuade Brutus to her cause. ““Brutus” and “Caesar” – what should be in that “Caesar”? / Why should that name be sounded more than yours?”” The rhetorical power of Shakespeare’s text is indisputable, so the joy for viewers watching and listening to Wareham’s Cassius emerges out of her masterful oration. Her articulation, vocal modulation, and physical gestures blend in a persuasive declamation that Brutus has little hope to resist. Anyone familiar with O’Connell’s past performances knows that he is an imposing presence on the stage. His Brutus coupled with Wareham’s Cassius form an irresistible force that at the play’s opening in July occasionally felt imbalanced with other relationships in the play, which did not come across as strongly. Wareham and O’Connell instil palpable empathy and pity in the audience as they struggle with their desperation to protect Rome and their loyalty to each other and to Caesar.
As one expects of a professional company, imbalances in early shows had been long corrected by the closing performance. In particular, Paul Wilson delivers an Antony whose loyalty to Caesar is admirable and whose speaking skills cast doubt on how strongly Julius Caesar’s ambitions actually run.
Wilson’s Antony is wholly convincing. I tried to dislike him because of his manipulative rhetoric, but it was difficult to do so. His colleagues did, after all, just murder their leader and his best friend. In a play brimming with bent truths and half-truths, misperceptions, and an overarching desperation to sway public opinion, it is only Mark Antony who remains true. Antony’s fault is not in disloyalty, then, but in the object of his loyalty. Like Julius Caesar, instead of first being loyal to Rome and Romans, Antony is first loyal to Caesar. Though viewers may accept the conspirators’ rationale for the assassination, Wilson’s Antony is unsettling in his grief. His rage is palpable. And Wilson’s delivery of one of the play’s most famous speeches – “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;” – has its desired effect on listeners. No longer comfortable with the assertion that Caesar’s death is the only recourse, the audience grapples with the ethics of executing someone who is guilty only of appearing to have the potential to become a despot.
One intriguing artistic choice in this production is the use of masks. Mask maker Chuck Herriott’s training and experience as a visual artist and actor add yet another layer of uncertainty to a play already rife with doubt. Main characters do not use them, but secondary and supporting characters do, and in a cast where actors play multiple roles, the masks make them more believable and easier to distinguish. But while the masks help us identify characters, masks are inherently suspect. Is the wearer who they say they are? What do they want? What are they hiding? Again, the audience and the Roman people are asked to make decisions based on words alone, without visual proof.
We never witness Caesar do or say anything that outright implicates him as a potential tyrant and there is just enough doubt left in viewers’ minds that it becomes impossible to choose a “right” side. We are left to base our judgments, as the characters do, on speech. The play raises questions about justice, truth and the distribution of power that are unsettling in their relevance to our current world. As Irvine writes in the playbill, “In an age of news and fake news, and of good leaders versus bad, this all too familiar story challenges us to ask ourselves exactly who and what do we believe and why?”
For more information, visit www.perchancetheatre.com or phone 1-709-771-2930.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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