A gripping contemporary take on a classic in the powerful, chilling, resonant Julius Caesar

Dion Johnstone & Moya O’Connell. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Groundling Theatre Company joins forces with Crow’s Theatre to present a chilling modern-day take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Chris Abraham, assisted by Rouvan Silogix, with additional writing by Zack Russell. Grippingly staged and brilliantly performed, this is a Julius Caesar unlike any you’ve ever seen before. The compelling spectacle of power, ambition and resistance opened at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Populist Caesar (Jim Mezon) has defeated rival Pompey and returns to Rome in triumph, greeted by throngs of adoring citizens, who—seeing him as a man of the people—celebrate his victory as their own. His closest friends and colleagues are troubled, though; and fear his thirst for power and inability to take good counsel will turn him tyrant as a large proportion of their countrymen thrust a crown upon him. In secret, Cassius (Moya O’Connell) approaches Caesar’s friend Brutus (Dion Johnstone) with an extreme solution. They are joined by like-minded fellow politicos (Sarah Afful, Walter Borden, Ryan Cunningham, Jani Lauzon, Diego Matamoros and André Sills) and the conspiracy is set. At home, Brutus’s ill and worried wife Portia (Michelle Giroux) reaches out to her distant husband for connection; a stranger even to himself, and conflicted and distracted by the wrong he must do for good, Brutus rebuffs her.

Warned by a Soothsayer (Borden) to beware the Ides of March, and entreated by his wife Calpurnia (Afful) to stay home that day, Caesar eschews advice and appears in the Senate chamber—and the conspirators hit their mark. Caesar’s golden boy Mark Antony (Graham Abbey) is spared at Brutus’s order, a decision that proves deadly as the underestimated and vengeful Antony, while not adept at reading people, excels at riling up a crowd. In a brilliantly heartfelt speech at Caesar’s funeral, Antony makes thinly veiled accusations directed at Brutus and his friends.

Civil war ensues, with Antony allying with Caesar’s heir Octavius (Afful) against Brutus, Cassius and their rebel army. Tragedy upon tragedy tries already exhausted spirits among the rebels, and things go badly for them. But Octavius is magnanimous in victory, recognizing that Brutus was a great man who loved and sacrificed for Rome.

Jim Mezon as Caesar in Julius Caesar-photobyDahliaKatz-1758
Jim Mezon. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Each and every performance is present, compelling and nuanced. Mezon gives a cool, sly, entitled edge to Caesar; more of a slick politician than a warrior, Caesar knows exactly what to say to win over the common man, whether he means it or not. Johnstone brings a gentle calmness to the fair-minded thinker Brutus; he is nicely complemented by O’Connell’s hot-tempered, manipulative and laser-focused warrior Cassius. Abbey’s Antony is a shrewd performer beneath the boyish jock charm, making Antony’s sharp power to persuade easily overlooked.

The remainder of the cast performs multiple roles, adeptly shifting in tone and character throughout. Afful’s loving, earnest Calpurnia and swaggering young warrior Octavius; Borden’s eerie, voice-modulate Soothsayer and dignified elder statesman; Cunningham’s impassioned young soldier Felix, a big fan of Caesar; Lauzon’s intrepid Trebonius and beautiful mourning vocals at the funeral; Matamoros’s stalwart servant and wry politician; and Sills’ irreverent, edgy Casca and skeptical radio show co-host.

The action is well-supported by the design team: Lorenzo Savoini’s startling set and lighting design; Ming Wong’s present-day costumes, shifting from the suits of politics to the fatigues of soldiers; and Thomas Ryder Payne’s evocative sound design, transporting us from the cheering crowds of Rome to the horrific sounds of destruction in war—and featuring some moving vocal and acoustic moments.

Jani Lauzon, Andre Sills and Diego Matamoros in Julius Caesar-photobyDahliaKatz-0925
Jani Lauzon, André Sills & Diego Matamoros. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Nicely bookended with a contemporary talk radio show at the top and a post-mortem interview regarding individual regrets at the end, this production of Julius Caesar is firmly rooted in the present, with historical events held up as a mirror to modern-day leadership. It’s hard not to draw a direct line to the despotic leaders we see on the world stage today—but as director Abraham’s program notes astutely mention, rather than take this as an indictment of individual leaders, we may want to broaden our gaze to include the political systems and societies that make the raising up of such men possible.

We all know how it starts and how it ends. What’s interesting is the meat in the middle, how it gets interpreted and how it resonates today. You may have seen this play before, but never like this. Go see it.

Julius Caesar continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Guloien Theatre until February 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended, as this is already a hot ticket.

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys

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James Daly & André Sills, with Allan Louis in the background, in “Master Harold” …and the Boys – photo by Harold Akin

Obsidian Theatre, in association with the Shaw Festival, brought its production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …and the Boys to Toronto, opening last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio theatre.

Directed by Philip Akin, and inspired by Fugard’s childhood relationships with the black employees of his mother’s tea room, “Master Harold” …and the Boys is set in 1950s South Africa, in St. George’s Park Tea Room. It is here that young Hally (James Daly) spends most of his after-school hours, doing homework and hanging out with tea room employees Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis). The three have an easy-going, friendly relationship, particularly Hally and Sam; full of witty banter, good-natured teasing and philosophical debates on everything from men of magnitude and social reform, to education and art, to the global vision gleaned from the local black community ballroom dance competition. Darkening Hally’s mood is the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father will be returning home from hospital – a prospect that pricks resentment over having to help his mother be nurse maid, and keep an eye on the household and tea room cash.

Forced into adult responsibilities early in his life, and now the de facto man of the house, Hally is coming of age during apartheid; and as the action progresses, we see him waver between familiar pal “Hally” and stern boss “Master Harold.” Ironically, Hally – the privileged one in the room – is the most cynical and pessimistic about the world, seeing only ugliness. Meanwhile, Sam and Willie see beauty and possibility; their enjoyment of ballroom dancing a metaphor for harmony. Sam and Willie have hope, while Hally has none. Perhaps Hally has only fear. As the discussion between Hally and Sam becomes more heated, things are said that cannot be unsaid.

Beautifully nuanced, committed performances from the cast. Louis brings a lovable, child-like sense of joy to Willie, who is excited to be competing in the upcoming ballroom dance competition and determined to master the quick step. A simple man of the old school, Willie sees nothing wrong with laying a beating on his girl Hilda when she steps out of line – but at least he’s smart enough to take Sam’s advice to stop it. Sills gives Sam a quiet strength and dignity, combined with a sharp sense of humour. Pragmatic, but forward-thinking, Sam has a quick mind and a precise memory – and he genuinely cares for Hally, even to the point of being an unexpected father figure. Daly plays nicely on the brink of manhood as Hally; with a Holden Caulfield edge about him, Hally is self-involved, smart and arrogant. Playful and familiar at first with his parents’ employees, hints of a little dictator begin to show as he feels increasingly stressed out over his family situation – and during his tantrums, he takes it out on Sam and Willie. In the end, the boy who hadn’t noticed the Whites Only sign on the park bench must decide if he wants to be a man who sits on that bench or walks away from it. And while some things cannot be unsaid, they can perhaps become a source of learning and growth.

The tea room serves as a microcosm of the larger world it inhabits. And though the play takes place in another time and place, it has much to teach us today about everyday and systemic racism, and the subtle and blatant ways in which it creates barriers based on assumptions, fear and ignorance. Go see this production.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this world to life – and creating a space that’s not only practical for the purposes of the play, but has an inviting aesthetic that makes you want to sit down for a snack: Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Kevin Lamotte and Chris Malkowski (lighting), Corey Macfadyen (sound) and Valerie Moore (dance sequence).

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys.

“Master Harold” …and the Boys continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. You can get advance tickets online; strongly recommended, given last night’s standing ovation.