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article imageReview: ‘Caesar’ in High Park makes bold choices; not all of them work Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 17, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - There are moments in Canadian Stage’s new “Julius Caesar” that are so affecting and original, you’re tempted to ignore other moments when it misfires. Director Estelle Shook turns this classic into high spectacle, but not always to its benefit.
Alternating with The Comedy of Errors at this year’s Shakespeare in High Park (an annual Toronto tradition since 1983), this modernized version of the Bard’s great tragedy of ancient Rome is far from boring, even if you’re not a Shakespeare fan. Rife with action, shouts and revels, percussive music, moody lighting and ear-catching sound effects, Shook’s Julius Caesar holds your attention as much with sensory assault as with Shakespeare’s poetry. Actors frequently run up and down the centre aisle and even talk directly to audience members. Sometimes the director’s risky choices work surprisingly well; other times, subtext seems to play second banana to flair and flash.
Julius Caesar is, of course, Shakespeare’s retelling of the assassination of the title Roman leader — played by Allan Louis with exactly the right blend of blind arrogance and magnetic charm — and its aftermath. In the wake of Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome, a group of envious conspirators, including Cassius (Allegra Fulton), Casca (Naomi Wright) and Cinna (Christopher Allen), plans to depose their leader violently. Reluctantly entering the conspiracy is “Caesar’s angel,” Marcus Brutus (Sean Baek), a close friend of Caesar who worries that the leader has become drunk with power. Siding close with Caesar is his right-hand man, Marc Antony (Dylan Trowbridge), who uses his charisma to sway the Roman populace into siding with Caesar.
Louis doesn’t give this production’s only standout performance; the other belongs to Fulton, whose compelling and original approach to Cassius is (perhaps unintentionally) reminiscent of Lady Macbeth. Her manipulative goading of Brutus in the first act has an almost seductive tone; she also adds good touches of sarcasm and authority here and there. Wright is effective in an early scene in which she nonchalantly describes the crowd’s reactions to Antony offering the crown to Caesar while eating a slice of watermelon. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less,” she says, sounding like a bored college student who thinks she’s above the hype.
But Baek’s Brutus is one of this Caesar’s biggest disappointments — especially since he’s arguably the most tragic role. The actor’s line readings lack depth and complexity; you never get a sense of Brutus’ inner conflict between his loyalty to Caesar and his desire to save Rome. Sometimes Baek telegraphs his emotions, sometimes he’s a blank, but never does he arouse your sympathy.
Trowbridge, meanwhile, has a memorable scene when he delivers Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Following Brutus’ formal, logical justification of the assassination from the stage, Shook has the grief-stricken Antony literally walk among the audience seats and plead directly to them. It’s a bold move that grabs and holds your attention, although some viewers may miss the point that Antony is deliberately manipulating the mob’s emotions. (Among this production’s many, many cut lines is Antony’s “Now let it work: mischief, thou art afoot / Take whatever course thou wilt,” which confirms his true intentions.)
Shook acknowledges Shakespeare’s original Roman setting, with actors wearing toga-like robes over modern casual dress and a simple set made up of six rectangular Forum-style pillars. But she also wants to adapt the play into a 21st-century context, particularly after Caesar’s assassination, when the togas are abandoned and the conspirators are chased by modern riot police and alarmed by sirens. She even has Antony and Cassius hiding in a tent covered in underground activist posters. I think she’s trying to evoke images of the Toronto G20 riots in 2010 — but if so, that doesn’t really make sense as a historical parallel. How does a successful political assassination align with a disastrous urban street protest?
Shook’s weirdest (and most distracting) choice is her depiction of the Soothsayer (Michael McManus) as an old homeless dude in ripped jeans and a faded YMCA T-shirt, spewing most of his lines through a megaphone. It wouldn’t make much difference if McManus were present only for the Soothsayer’s few scenes in the original text — but Shook keeps him hanging around for most of the play, either sitting in the centre aisle or standing onstage in the background, shouting out more lines at odd moments. Sometimes they’re recognizable lines from the play (including Artimedorus’ warning from Act II, Scene iii); other times, they sound like random nonsense about the price of freedom and other slogans. One of the most powerfully staged scenes is Caesar’s assassination itself — a savage and brutal dance that seems longer and more painful than it is — and the Soothsayer’s interruption ruins it. (He also doubles as Cinna the Poet, for some reason.)
Not to deny that this Caesar has other scenes and ideas that come together brilliantly. The first appearance of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus is appropriately creepy: Louis wears an Eyes Wide Shut-esque gold mask over his entire face that makes his deep, resonant voice seem detached and omniscient. And Shook’s decision to have the pillars, which are made up of grey boxes, knocked down and scattered randomly after the assassination evokes the chaos of a battlefield; it’s a simple change that makes a huge difference, especially when mist is added. She makes full use of all of the theatre space, not just the stage but also the seats, often using the audience as the Roman populace. Actors using the audience space provide some of the production’s best (and worst) moments.
I’d recommend Shakespeare in High Park’s Julius Caesar for people who think they don’t like Shakespeare, or for students of the play who want to see it come alive in a contemporary context (however contrived). It’s an exciting show that’s made for an audience, and it moves quickly. That doesn’t necessarily make it a strong interpretation of the play itself, though, and purists may yearn for a more traditional take.
Julius Caesar runs at the High Park Amphitheatre until September 5.
More about Shakespeare, Julius caesar, Toronto, Theatre, canadian stage
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