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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Power, plots & passion in the compelling, intimate & deftly performed Caesar

Kevin Kashani as Marc Antony and Melanie Leon as Julius Caesar in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

 

Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its 2016-17 season of startling, up close and personal theatre with its production of William Shakespeare’s Caesar, directed by Dylan Brenton and opening last night to a packed house in Kensington Hall.

Triumphant Caesar (Melanie Leon) is out of control and turned tyrant, while still managing to maintain support among everyday Romans, who want to crown her as Emperor. Her friend Brutus (Megan Miles) is deeply concerned about the impact her rule could have on Rome, while Cassius (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) goes one step further and hatches a plan to take Caesar out of the equation. Cognizant of her friend Brutus’s popularity, Cassius recruits Brutus, as well as Casca (Felix Beauchamp) and others, to her cause: assassinate Caesar.

Forewarned by a soothsayer of dark portents on the Ides of March, Caesar is reluctant to make her regular trip to the Senate—and wife Calpurnia (Beauchamp) implores her to stay at home. However, her pride and vanity are stroked by one of the conspirators (Kevin Kashani) and she ventures out despite all warnings. And despite Cassius’s warnings to Brutus about Caesar’s favourite Marc Antony (Kashani), Brutus refuses to shed his blood and even allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

After Caesar is killed, Brutus speaks before her fellow Romans to quell mounting fear, confusion and anger—and they are satisfied. That is, until Antony gives that famous speech at Caesar’s funeral and turns the tide of public opinion, sparking a war—with Antony and Caesar’s son Octavius (Beauchamp) on one side and Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on the other. When all appears lost, both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives, with Brutus’s reputation for pure intentions throughout this endeavour remaining intact.

For those of you who’ve seen earlier Wolf Manor productions, the gender fluid casting will be nothing new. Casting female actors in male roles and vice versa provides interesting new takes on familiar characters—and serves as a reminder that women are just as capable of pride, violence and power brokering; and men of tenderness, caution and introspection. The intimate, in the round staging gives a Coliseum feel to the set; we’re witnesses to these events, but we’re also the citizens of Rome. And the running image of the sands of time—pouring out of letters, wine bottles and even Caesar’s blood—hearkening to a sense of legacy and that, whether emperor or everyman, we are all bound for dust.

Brenton has an especially strong and compact cast for this tale of power and might for right. Miles gives Brutus a nice balance between eloquence and strength. Pensive and fair-minded, Brutus is a reluctant leader driven by a firm resolve to do what’s best for Rome, no matter what the cost—even to herself. Vallecchi Williams tempers Cassius’s blunt boldness with a sharp mind and an intuitive insight into men’s hearts. Her finger on the pulse of public sentiment, her plans go well beyond mere schemes and plots. And her love and friendship with Brutus reveal a gentler, emotional side; great chemistry between Miles’ mild-mannered Brutus and Vallecchi Williams’ fiery Cassius.

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Foreground: Maddalena Vallecchi Williams & Felix Beauchamp; Background: Megan Miles in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

Leon gives a great turn in two very different roles: the proud, vain and tyrannical Caesar; and Brutus’s fiercely loyal and loving wife Portia, where she plays a lovely two-hander in which Portia, beside herself with worry, begs to know what ails Brutus. Beauchamp also does a marvelous job with multiple roles: as the eerily quiet, menacing Casca; Brutus’s wide-eyed serving boy; Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who relays a dream of dark portents; and the sturdy young Octavius. Kashani does a great job with the many sides of Antony; ready to spill blood after he’s spilled tears over Caesar’s corpse, he proves himself to be a master manipulator of mob mentality during his sly spin on the conspirators during the funeral speech, as well as a fine warrior—and is greatly underestimated by his enemies.

With shouts to the design team for creating the minimalist, evocative environment and atmosphere: Tessa Hallett (set), Nikolas Nikita (costumes) and Elizabeth Elliott (lighting).

Power, plots and passion in the compelling, intimate and deftly performed Caesar.

Caesar continues at Kensington Hall till May 28; full schedule and advance tix available online. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue with limited seating and a very strong company.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.