Sunday, July 22, 2007

JULIUS CAESAR at Bard on the Beach

I feel rusty after not having seen a play in well over a month! So getting to a Bard on the Beach show gives me an excuse to get back up on the horse, so to speak...

I had the chance to teach JULIUS CAESAR to grade 11 English students in my former life as a high school teacher in Toronto. It was a tough sell. Unlike R&J or Macbeth or Dream or 12th Night, JC is a political play that ends in war and involves the decision made by a group of "honourable men" to pre-emptively assassinate a man they fear will become a tyrant.

I like the Bard's studio stage, seating only 240, and was pleased to see the new alley configuration that places the audience on both sides of a rectangular playing space. While this limits design elements such as backdrops, it definitely increases the intimacy factor. Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn directs a workmanlike production that moves along quite well, but overall I found the production uninspired.

The cast features some well-known Vancouver actors such as Allan Morgan (as Caesar), Scott Bellis (Brutus), and Gerry Mackay (Cassius), all of whose work I enjoyed, plus some good supporting work from Bard regulars such as Alan Zinyk, David Mackay and Jennifer Lines. But is it just me, or is the vocal quality of these Shakespearean actors somewhat lacking? Does Bard have a vocal coach working with its company, as seen in Stratford? In a play that is centred in oratory I wanted to hear deep resonant tones that demonstrate the power of a skilled orator to become a leader of wo/men, whether for better or worse. The debates between characters, the famous speeches of Brutus and Marc Anthony following Caesar's death, the fight between Cassius and Brutus in Act 2 all should hit the audience's ears like thunder. Bellis and Mackay deliver some needed passion in their scenes together, as do Bellis and Lines in the lovely scene between Portia and Brutus. But at intermission I found myself complaining aloud that Craig Erickson's somewhat reedy voice failed to build into the mob-raising climax the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" monologue requires.

Dunn injects more women into the play than is usually seen and I liked having an older female actor play one of the conspirators. But on the battlefield in Act 2 this gender equality fades as the women are presented as servants only, not soldiers. Perhaps the most frustrating moment of the play for me was Dunn's decision to cast Allan Morgan as the soldier who agrees to help Brutus fall upon his sword (which happens a LOT at the end of this play!) It seemed clear to me that this double-casting offered an incredible opportunity to reveal Caesar's ghost (who has haunted the guilty Brutus) one last time as Brutus slays himself. All Morgan has to do is remove his helmet then put it back on to create a powerful theatrical moment. But this doesn't happen and the play ends with me feeling a bit short-changed by a serviceable but relatively unmemorable production of this challenging play.

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