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.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.