When staging Shakespeare for a contemporary audience who’s seen each of the Bard’s plays a gazillion times, it all comes down to acting, design, and execution, and A Noise Within scores three for three in their Spring 2015 season production of Julius Caesar.
If any Shakespeare tragedy resonates as powerfully in the 21st Century as it did way back in the 17th, Julius Caesar is that play, one that casts its often cynical eye on the behind-the-scenes political machinations that can bring about the downfall of one leader and the rise of another, and in so doing propel counter-revolutionary forces bent on righting the wrongs of both.
The leader in question is, of course, the titular (albeit decidedly supporting) character of Gaius Julius Caesar (Patrick O’Connell), whose assassination on “The Ides of March” (i.e. March 15, 44 BC) triggered the end of the Roman Republic.
Shakespeare introduces us Caesar’s top two assassins, Cassius (Freddy Douglas) and Brutus (Robertson Dean), the former motivated by envy and a lust for power, the latter by a fear (stoked by none other than Cassius) that his best friend, the conquering war hero Caesar, has grown overly ambitious, an ambition that might soon turn Rome into a dictatorship.
When a coalition of Caesar’s enemies assassinate him with a grand total of thirty-three stab wounds (Et tu, Brute’s among them), Marc Antony (Rafael Goldstein) and his supporters take it upon themselves to battle Caesar’s murderers to the death.
If Julius Caesar, easily one of Shakespeare’s most political plays, has continued to be one of his most popular for the past four centuries, much of its enduring success stems from just how timeless it remains, the machinations of its lead characters repeated again and again throughout history all the way up to the present day.
It is perhaps for this reason that directorial whizzes Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliot have had costume designer extraordinaire Angela Balogh Calin set Julius Caesar somewhere in the past/present/future, its characters’ floor-length robe-like trench coats echoing Keanu Reeves’ Neo garb in Matrixes 1, 2, and 3.
Calin’s costumes are just one aspect of this Julius Caesar’s extraordinarily striking look, aided and abetted by scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s deliberately era-unspecific moving scaffolds, Robert Oriol’s original music composition, musical direction, and sound design, which give J.C. the pulsating soundtrack of a classic Hollywood historical epic, and Ken Booth’s stunningly blood-saturated lighting design.
As for performances, they simply don’t get any better than those delivered by Dean, Douglas, O’Connell, and a particularly fine Goldstein, whose “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” eulogy is one of the most compellingly delivered Shakespeare soliloquies I’ve ever heard.
Supporting work is uniformly superb, the ensemble completed by Joe Sofranko (Octavius, Marullus), June Carryl (Cinna), Deborah Strang (Casca), understudy Christopher Fairbanks (Decius, Flavius, Lepedus), Alison Elliott (Calpurnia), Jill Hill (Portia), E.K. Dagenfield (Cinna The Poet, Metellus), and Abubakr Ali (Soothsayer, Lucius), all of the above doubling as Plebians alongside Plebians, Senators, Messengers, and Soldiers Evan Garcia, Zachary Kahn, Natalie Reiko, and Troy Stafford Whiteley.
Additional design kudos are shared by hair, wig, and makeup designer Gieselle Blair and props master Marissa Bergman, with fight choreographer Ken Merckx once again scoring highest marks for some thrilling Act Two swordplay.
Juliana McBride is stage manager and Samantha Sintef assistant stage manager. Deserved program credits go also to Maria Uribe (costume shop coordinator), Orlando de la Paz (scenic painter), and Rei Yamamoto, Michael Jones, Selina Woggerman, and Rene Ozvaldo Parras Jr. (assistant scenic painters).
The real Julius Caesar may have met his maker over two thousand years ago, but his life and death live on at A Noise Within in as thrillingly acted, designed, and executed (no pun intended) Julius Caesar as any Shakespeare lover or political buff could possibly wish for.
A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.
March 28, 2105
Photos: Craig Schwartz