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.
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.
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.