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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Outdoor (& inexpensive) Shakespeare in & around Toronto

You don’t have to schlep to the Stratford Festival or spend a lot of money to see some great Shakespeare this summer. Check out these local productions, running under the stars…

Canadian Stage’s annual Shakespeare in High Park: Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—running now in rep to Sept 2 in Toronto’s High Park. PWYC ($20 suggested) at the door or advance reserve premium seats online.

Dauntless City Theatre’s Bard in Berczy: Much Ado About Nothing—running Aug 3 – 26 in Toronto’s Berczy Park (near St. Lawrence Market, that park with the cool dog-themed fountain). PWYC.

Driftwood Theatre Group’s Bard’s Bus Tour: Rosalynde (or, As You Like It)running nowall over Ontario till Aug 12, including two performances in Toronto at Ontario Place Trillium Park. Free or PWYC (see the schedule for details).

Shakespeare in the Ruff presents AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s radical adaptation of Julius Caesar: Portia’s Julius Caesar—running Aug 16 to Sept 3 in Toronto’s Withrow Park. PWYC ($20 suggested); reserve $20-$30.

 

A powerful exploration of violence & justice – 16Endean Collective’s all-female Julius Caesar

Julius-PosterThe 16Endean Collective opened their all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last night, to a packed house that quickly became a rapt audience. Directed by Jennifer Parr, the production is running now at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Staged on a minimalist – but extremely effective – black and red t-shaped playing area (designed by Rosemary Doyle), with spare but beautiful costumes (Jan Venus) and few props (also by Doyle – and this is a swordless Julius Caesar – more on that later in the post), this production also features live percussion music by Morgan O’Leary. This Julius Caesar focuses on the power of Shakespeare’s words, and the actions and relationships of the characters. As Parr states in her director’s notes: At the centre of Julius Caesar is the question “When is it lawful to kill a tyrant; and what happens when you do?” And, so the characters and audience are taken on a gripping journey of violence and justice – and the consequences that emerge from those actions.

Julius Caesar features an excellent ensemble of female talent, including: (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss.

Weiss is imperious and commanding as Julius Caesar, an arrogant, vain man threatened by the younger, more physically fit nobles and warriors around him. Toni Ellwand is compelling as Brutus – stalwart, wise and measured, with a strength of character and firm sense of fair play. Françoise Balthazar’s Cassius is the perfect complement in this friendship of brothers-in-arms, brash – at times impulsive – ambitious and driven; the former spurred by love of his country and the latter enraged at the disposal of undeserved power. Llyandra Jones gives us a young lion of a Marc Antony, as cunning a warrior as he is an orator – he would be a present-day king of spin. There are also a few women playing women: Deborah Verginella brings a Portia (Brutus’s wife) who is passionate, loyal and hard-pressed to learn what keeps her husband awake at night. Catherine Bruce’s Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) is equally strong; possessed of visions and fiercely protective of her husband – as is Rosemary Doyle’s mysterious and insistent Soothsayer, warning Caesar of the Ides of March at the beginning of the play. All in all, a very fine cast – and excellent work all around; and judging from the surnames, we have a couple of related actors too (Brutus’s young servant Lucius is played by Toni Ellwand’s daughter Ellie, for instance).

As I mentioned earlier, there are no swords – or weapons of any kind – in this production; and I must admit, when I saw the assassination scene coming, I wondered how they were going to pull it off. Very convincingly, it turns out. Through some beautifully – and powerfully – choreographed action (by director Parr), the assassins mime their stabs, and the scene is bathed in red light as the act proceeds in slow motion, each player’s strike highlighted until the final, most startling in its poignancy, stab from Brutus. And so all the scenes of killing and suicide go – all through the strength of movement and a dramatic shift in lighting. And, given the intimacy of the space, no matter where you’re sitting, this all happens close to the audience. Nicely done!

The 16Endean Collective’s powerful production of Julius Caesar runs at Red Sandcastle Theatre until June 22, so you’d best get your tickets early – and be sure to note the 7:30 p.m. start time for evening performances. This is a production you won’t want to miss.

In the meantime, take a gander at my recent interview with actor Françoise Balthazar.

 

Interview with actor Françoise Balthazar – upcoming all-female Julius Caesar

Francoise headshot 1Françoise Balthazar is a Toronto-based actor who took on the role of Richard III in the Toronto Fringe (2006) all-female production Richard 3, Queens 4 (The Deadly Game), directed by Jennifer Parr. Now, in collaboration with Parr and many of the same cast members, Balthazar is playing Cassius in the 16Endean Collective’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, running for 11 performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre from June 11 – 22. I had the chance to interview Françoise Balthazar over email about the production – and doing these intense, violent plays with an all-female cast.

LWMC: Hi, Françoise. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Julius Caesar. You, Jennifer Parr and most of the cast worked together in an all-female version of Richard III in a Toronto Fringe 2006 production. What made you decide to tackle Julius Caesar – and when did the idea take root?

FB: Toni Ellwand, our producer/actor, who is portraying the role of Brutus, saw a production of an all-female Julius Caesar in England that greatly impressed her and which received outstanding reviews. Toni then met our director Jennifer Parr at a theatre gathering just before Christmas, and she shared her interest about mounting a Toronto production of Julius Caesar. Jennifer Parr, a Shakespearean director and scholar, was very keen on the idea and offered to direct the show. It has been an unusually fast process from concept to production.

LWMC: The thing that strikes me about all-female productions like this is that they balance out our perspective of human nature and behaviour – and we see that human beings, no matter what their sex, gender, etc., are capable of a wide range of action and reaction, including violence. Richard 3, Queens 4 explored violence as a means to gain power and position. How did the company go about exploring the relationship between violence and retribution in Julius Caesar?

FB: As actors, we had to explore the personal motivations behind every conspirator’s reasons for wanting to assassinate Caesar, which ranged from pure justice for the good of Rome, to vengeance against Caesar’s tyranny and, as in Cassius’ case, a mixture of personal envy and hatred for Caesar and tyranny itself to wanting to reestablish the legitimacy of the Roman Republic. One of the methods the conspirators used to explore all these issues was a short series of workshops in the Michael Chekhov technique given by Rena Polley, who is an actor and certified teacher in the Chekhov technique, exploring group dynamics and high stakes situation.

LWMC: And it’s all mixed with ambition and a desire to do what’s right, so it’s all very grey in Julius Caesar, and many of the characters who are acting with a righteous sense of retribution don’t have entirely pure motives. How did the company navigate those grey areas, along with the layers of deceit and betrayal?

FB: We began by delineating every character from a historical point of view, both as individuals and as members of Roman society at this specific moment in time. Then, as a company, we explored all the interconnecting personal relationships and the stakes involved in the revolutionary choices that so many of the characters make.

LWMC: Brutus is Caesar’s friend and a respected Roman – and Cassius believes his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar will add credibility to their cause and garner good public opinion. Cassius engineers Brutus’s involvement, to the point of fabricating notes of support from the public. And, even though he’s using Brutus, it’s clear that Cassius loves and values him a great deal. How did you approach these contrasting – and contradictory – sides of Cassius?

FB: Cassius is a very ambitious extremist, and his primary driving force is to make sure that Caesar is eliminated at any cost, including forging notes of support to ensure that Brutus commits to the conspiracy. Cassius also has a deep abiding love for Brutus because he is virtuous, just and a noble Roman. Cassius’ worth is recognized and validated by Brutus, which makes him all the more precious to him. Having a deep understanding of Cassius’ psychological drives and creating a backstory of this character, along with the insights drawn from the Michael Chekhov workshop that the company attended, allowed me to integrate these contrasting elements of Cassius.

LWMC: When someone commits an act of violence, even for a good cause, they are forever changed. Did that factor into the exploration of the play in this production?

FB: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning of our process, Jennifer Parr our director urged us to explore the question we see at the heart of the play and our production: Is it ever lawful to kill a Tyrant? And what happens if you do?

And, specifically, from Cassius’ perspective, the murder of Caesar liberates him and his fellow conspirators to become heroic figures in the fight against tyranny.

LWMC: Did the ensemble discover anything new about Julius Caesar throughout the process?

FB: Yes, the incredible amount of love and loyalty between characters, whether husband and wives, friends and fellow revolutionaries, and also the unexpected amount of comedy and humour in a play about such a serious topic.

LWMC: I imagine some personal discoveries also emerged. What can you tell us about that experience?

FB: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve worked with Shakespeare’s First Folio text to such a degree, and I fully realize now how invaluable the clues that Shakespeare presents are incredibly useful to the actor. And, amazingly, speaking this empowering visceral dialogue that is usually reserved for men is a thrilling experience, and makes me feel more bold, expansive and powerful as a performer.

LWMC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of Julius Caesar?

FB: We hope they come away feeling that this play speaks to us now, as urgently as it did to Shakespeare’s audience, and that the question of how to change our society in extreme times is never an easy one.

Experiencing the play with an all-female cast, on a thrust stage surrounded by the audience, also brings a new perspective and fresh take on the story, the characters, and the ideas.

LWMC: What’s up next for you?

FB: At the present moment, I’m pouring my heart and soul into this production. Ask me again in three weeks’ time!

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

FB: I’m hoping to take away the learning I experience in playing the complex, powerful and commanding role of Cassius into my future work as an actor. Also, I work as a voice-over artist and am very passionate about creating characters solely through the use of the voice. The virtue of playing Cassius potentially contributes to my work in animation voice-over, which calls for the ability of treating with a broad range of characters, the sophisticated use of breath control, and possessing a great vocal range.

LWMC: Thanks, Françoise!

The 16Endean Collective production of Julius Caesar ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss. Julius Caesar runs at the Red Sandcastle Theatre June 11-22 (preview on June 11 and opening on June 12).