Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.

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Past & present collide as the walls come down in the compelling, intimate Agency

earl-pastko-ben-sanders-and-eva-barrie-in-agency-photo-by-greg-wong
Earl Pastko, Ben Sanders & Eva Barrie in Agency – photo by Greg Wong

Yell Rebel opened its production of Eva Barrie’s Agency, directed by Megan Watson, in The Theatre Centre Incubator space last Thursday; I caught the show last night.

Searching for answers about the fate of her father Peter (Ben Sanders), Hannah (Eva Barrie) arrives at a Berlin travel agency looking for Thomas (Earl Pastko). Armed with conflicting reports and evidence, and only vague memories, Hannah is determined to find the truth. Convinced that her father may still be alive, the man Hannah seeks answers from was her father’s friend and co-worker – and also a Stasi informant. A story woven across time, through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical reunification of Berlin, Agency shows us a world of greys – where nothing is as simple as it appears to be, and where good intentions can come to haunt and hurt.

Shifting across time and space, Agency plays out in intimate two-handers: mainly between Hannah and Thomas in the present, and Thomas and Peter in the past; in some cases, overlapping on the playing space as Thomas recalls a conversation with Peter as he speaks with Hannah.

Lovely, strong work from the cast here. Pastko’s Thomas acts as the bridge between past and present; unflinchingly calm and introverted, there is a kind sweetness beneath that gruff, old-school exterior. An adept spy, he’s struggled to find a way to use his covert talents for good. Barrie’s Hannah is all youthful, haunted energy; fragile and uncertain for all her bravado and research, she longs for the truth and gets more than she bargained for. And Sanders gives us an optimistic, charming and extroverted Peter; acting on instinct and hoping for the best, Peter’s sense of hopefulness and love is put to the test.

In his or her own way each is seeking reconciliation and redemption through these revelations. And, like the birds that repeatedly fly into the agency office windows, they’re butting up against the invisible walls that keep them apart.

Past and present collide as the walls come down in the compelling, intimate Agency.

Agency continues in The Theatre Centre Incubator until Nov 20; get your tix in advance online. Please note the early start times: 7 p.m. for evening performances and 1 p.m. for matinées.

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Dragged kicking & screaming by desire – JR Theatre’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow

Dreamer_poster_WEBThis was my first time seeing John Patrick Shanley’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow – this production directed by Eva Barrie for JR Theatre Company – and I wasn’t familiar with the play at all. Written around the same time as Shanley’s Savage in Limbo, Dreamer touches on some similar themes: love, desire, life – and the crazy-making nature of it all.

When I step inside the theatre at The Box Theatre, located in an old warehouse on Niagara Street, the first thing that strikes me is the pre-show soundtrack. Surreal, dream-like spoken word – sometimes barely distinguishable – accompanied by a percussion-driven back beat. Then, the space itself. The 45-some seats are set up in four rows along the length of the playing space, two on each side. This will be an up-close and intimate experience. The painting that hangs at one end of the sparsely furnished space – child-like and linear, an orange face on a grey background – reminds me of Denise Savage’s dream monologue in Savage in Limbo, during which she’s peeled away her face like it was tissue, leaving a piece of “flat grey cardboard where (her) face had been.” We later learn that this is a self-portrait of Tommy. The whitewashed brick walls of the playing area are curtained floor to ceiling with plastic, bringing to mind an artist’s studio. Or a serial killer’s lair.

Dreamer thrums in the space between visceral and cerebral, primal and evolved, profane and divine – and the storytelling style shifts between real and surreal, art and life, dreaming and waking. And the cast of Yehuda Fisher (Tommy, also co-producer with Rifkin), Scott McCulloch (Dad) and Jada Rifkin (Donna) are up for the challenge.

Performing with guts, passion and the drive of philosophers seeking the answer to the mystery of the universe, the actors dive into the dynamics of boyfriend/girlfriend, father/daughter and father/daughter’s boyfriend with courage and honesty. The play is broken into a series of mostly two-handers, each character struggling with messy but vital relationships, and with his/her own sense of identity. The father/daughter scene is particularly moving and revealing, bringing us to the core of the play. Men and women, and the primal drive to connect, to create – and how we are all changed in the process, our former selves torn apart and transformed into something new. We are drawn into love by an unstoppable desire that drags us kicking and screaming – and, to a large extent, with our consent.

I was very happy to have seen this show on Valentine’s Day, which also happened to be the Friday before the Family Day long weekend. It reminded me of how much relationships can play on a razor’s edge, so fragile and complex and fierce at the same time – and the brutal honesty and nurturing that love requires.

You have two more chances to see JR Theatre’s production of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow: tonight (Sat, Feb 15) at 8 p.m. and tomorrow (Sun, Feb 16) at 2 p.m. Tonight may be sold out, so best to book ahead in order to avoid disappointment.