Tag Archives: Alexandria Creech

Great Caesar’s Ghost Heads for the Hills

Review: Julius Caesar from Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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It’s an odd juxtaposition, that’s for sure. In reviving Julius Caesar, Free Reign Theatre Company has taken what is arguably Shakespeare’s most urban tragedy and transported it to Historic Rural Hill, a 15-minute drive from the nearest town, suburban Huntersville. Coming by way of I-77 and the I-485 beltway to the Sunday matinee, we may have seen one traffic light after exiting the highways and entrusting our destiny to Google Maps.

When you arrive, you turn off a narrow winding paved road onto a narrower, arrow-straight gravel road that carves through a grassy rise, two rustic buildings looming at the top. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the simple colors and weathered wooden structures of the place reminded me of Christina’s World at first blush, Andrew Wyeth’s masterwork. Even as we parked, it seemed unlikely that either of these buildings could be a theater. The shed at our right seemed too small, and the barn-like building in front of us seemed to be serving a different purpose.

The sheer number of cars in the makeshift lot gave me the sinking feeling that we were in the wrong place. The family emerging from another car did not have the look of theatergoers heading to see Julius Caesar. God help us.

Moving closer, I still felt that the old building might be serving as a café, with customers or picnickers mulling around under a ramshackle awning at the side. Wide double doors facing us didn’t seem to be in use, so we headed to the other side of this barn, where things finally began to make sense.

A long file of food trucks was aligned down the slope at the other side of the rise, explaining the phenomenal number of cars that had parked. The doors at this side of the big barn proved to be the entrance to Free Reign’s makeshift theater, extending all the way to the other end of the building. Actually, this theater extended beyond its rear wall – for those people who seemed to be dining al fresco on the other side were really Free Reign’s acting troupe.

Most of the backstage maneuvering in this production actually happens outdoors, with just a narrow corridor behind the temporary stage devoted to entrances and exits. Stage manager Megan Hirschy already had the comings and goings of the 17-person cast running with admirable precision by the time we witnessed the fourth performance, but could she really do it without a stash of Tylenol or other medicinals?

We couldn’t have mistaken the Roman citizens, senators, tribunes, tradesmen, or Caesar for picnickers if costume designer Heather Bucsh – and director Robert Brafford – had opted for the ancient attire from Italian fashionistas that was trendy in March of 44 B.C. Judging by the half dozen Caesars I’ve seen since the turn of the millennium (in Oregon, Canada, High Point, and Charlotte), it would be a novel idea these days to revert to authentic dress.

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Not surprising. The tensions in this tragedy between representative government and autocracy, freedom and slavery, those in power and those scheming to overthrow them – all of these resonate with us more readily in the New World than the dynastic Old-World struggles and power grabs that typify Shakespeare’s histories and dramas. For some odd reason, the approval of the common folk seems to matter in Julius Caesar, and that naturally appeals to Americans.

Because Shakespeare views Caesar, Mark Antony, and Marcus Brutus with such admirable objectivity, it has always been fairly easy for actors and directors to tip the scales one way or the other – to make this Caesar’s tragedy or Brutus’s – or to balance Brutus equally with his adversaries, making them both tragic victims. In Elizabethan days, Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been more likely outraged by any opposition or treachery against a monarch. For generations, Antony’s funeral speech would be memorized as if it were gospel.

Today’s audiences are more cognizant of Antony’s cunning. The laughter that rang out at Historic Rural Hill as Ted Patterson delivered the famed oration was partially directed at Antony for his transparent manipulativeness. Mostly, it was aimed at the notion that “We, the people” would fall for it. We would need to be very rustic indeed for that to happen.

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Patterson lets us see, with a choice expression or three, how Antony marvels at how easy it is to sway a Roman mob, not exactly the same valiant and vulnerable romantic hero we find in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. That’s enough to ensure that our sympathies will lean toward Brutus, but Russell Rowe gives us an extra nudge as Caesar, a little bit more arrogant, pompous, and egotistical than we might expect from a benevolent ruler – and a little less tender and empathetic towards his wife, Calpurnia, who pays more heed to soothsayers and bad dreams.

Offstage, Caesar is rejecting a crown three times during the opening scenes, but we actually see Brutus rebuffing Cassius when he repeatedly urges taking action, fearing that Caesar will relent, accept a throne, and become invincible. Both of the main adversaries show character, but Devin Clark as Brutus is clearly the gentler of the two. With just spare scenery at his disposal, Brafford shrewdly distinguishes between the dignity of Caesar’s household and the humbleness of Brutus’s at the other end of the stage.

There is also a palpable difference between the wives. Lauren Duckworth is regal as Calpurnia rather than adoring: when she counsels her husband against venturing out to the Capitol on the Ides of March, we assume that she’s angling to reign for decades as Empress of Rome. Alexandria Creech is definitely more submissive as Brutus’s wife, Portia, more intimate and seductive.

2022~Julius Caesar-31Both men give in to their wives, but Caesar’s yielding to Calpurnia is only temporary, largely because Cal has overstepped while Portia asks for less. More to the point, both leaders give in to their most potent political allies, Caesar finally deigning to accept a crown from Antony and The Senate, Brutus agreeing to join Cassius and his cronies in their assassination plot.

Off my radar since her college days 12 years ago, Chelsea Hunter is instantly sensational as Cassius. Along with Patterson, Rowe, and Clark, Hunter has one of the strongest voices onstage, so her Cassius is formidable and authoritative as well persuasive – perhaps even intimidating, notwithstanding Clark’s impressive sangfroid. What seems strange in this modernized Caesar, with its colorblind and gender-blind casting, is that Brafford didn’t cross a final frontier and change the pronouns of the text to suit his players.

Two thousand years after Caesar’s death – and 300 after Shakespeare’s – it’s perfectly ordinary to find women scheming and mixing it up with fellow politicos. So why hesitate?

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Brafford’s reluctance became most problematic and comical with Jess Johnson’s unmistakably feminine – and gossipy – take on Casca. Giving Cassius and Brutus the lowdown on Antony thrice offering the crown and Caesar turning it down with increasing reluctance, Johnson was repeatedly flapping open an oriental fan to punctuate her narrative. This mode of exposition was pretty hilarious and hard to quibble with, particularly in recounting what we know, we know, we know.

Johnson’s demonstrative antics were also handy at a matinee on a hot afternoon when the building’s AC was waging war against the heat outside, victorious against the torrid temperature but also against all but the loudest voices. Conditions for hearing all the actors and getting the full impact of the lighting are undoubtedly better at evening performances, and a boost for Great Caesar’s Ghost. But whoever had his or her hand on the switch should be coping with cooler weather next Sunday’s matinee – and better aware of the AC overkill this week that had some members of the audience rubbing their arms or shivering.

Less AC would be a win-win for noise and comfort.

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The view outside at Historic Rural Hill is likely pretty hectic during a performance, for more than half the cast is doubling, tripling, or more to play all the roles that Shakespeare prescribed. Brafford himself took on four roles aside from directing. My favorites among these platooned players were Jonathan Caldwell as the sassy Cobbler in the opening scene, Kristin Varnell as the spooky Soothsayer, and the inimitable David Hensley as Lucilius, the slimeball who hilariously impersonates Brutus in the heat of battle.

Best of all, though, is the chameleonic Katie Bearden, who plays no fewer than five roles, including Decius Brutus, surely the most underappreciated role in all of Shakespeare. For Decius undoes Calpurnia’s persuasion, reinterprets her prophetic dream, and with sly flattery convinces Caesar to come on down and accept the crown from The Senate. These are feats of dissembling and oratory worthy of Mark Antony, with no less impact on Roman history.

What was conspicuous for me in 2022 watching Julius Caesar – what I overlooked when I previously saw it at Spirit Square in 2014 – was the complete lack of dialogue between Brutus and Caesar before differences between them were settled with violence. Very much like America now and then, only so much more obvious today.

Free Reign’s “Saint Joan” Handsomely Shaves a Shavian Tragedy

Review: George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan

By Perry Tannenbaum

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlott

Didacticism and verbosity are probably the chief reasons why George Bernard Shaw has fallen out of favor, even if those charges are often overblown and undeserved. The Anglo-Irish playwright’s works, faithfully presented each summer in rotation at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake up in Ontario, can seem musty and intimidating compared to today’s snappy sitcom dialogue or yesteryear’s sleek Oscar Wilde epigrams.

Of course, the more didactic and verbose a GBS play might be, the less a director might feel she or he can reshape it. So there’s often a backstage disinclination to wrestle with Shaw’s once-revered scripts that conspires with the audience fear factor.

Maybe that explains why the last two Shaw productions I’ve seen, nearly five years apart, have both been Saint Joan. My first live encounter with Shaw’s only tragedy was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York in a lively Bedlam Theatre production. Almost instantly, I could see that this is one play where the playwright has loosened his tight grip on his stage characters. Here the story has a grip on him, and even before I found it confirmed in his humongous preface (more than half the size of the play), it was obvious that he not only deeply researched the exploits of Joan of Arc, but he had also meticulously studied the transcripts of her witchcraft trial.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottActor/director Eric Tucker and his Bedlam cast had a field day with the script, divvying up 25 roles among four actors. Shaw’s contention that there was no villain in the Maid of Orleans’ undoing came through vividly in an evening that mixed some fun into the high seriousness – but the evening was three hours long, hardly making a dent in GBS’s notorious loquacity. The new Free Reign Theatre production, currently at Spirit Square, brings Saint Joan more fully into the realm of accessibility. Director David Hensley noticeably shaves the Shavian discourse, and company founder Charles Holmes has free rein to ply his fight directing craft. Multiple episodes of spirited swordplay are sprinkled amid the wordplay.

Hensley deploys four times as many actors on the drama, allowing it to breathe more naturally than Bedlam’s insane reduction, where one of the actors might actually change roles mid-sentence and reply to himself. A more benign form of such absurdity persists with Free Reign, where the same French faces we saw opposing and abetting Joan’s miraculous rise to military leadership suddenly transform into her enemies in the angry and confounded English camp.

In a role that has been mainly populated by the great dames of theatre history rather than precocious teens, Amy Cheek makes an amazing splash the first time I’ve seen her in Charlotte. There were times, over the course of the evening, a relatively svelte 2:15 at Duke Energy Theater, when I felt that her excellence was all that was necessary. There is, as her elders say repeatedly, something about her – an ardent belief that infuses a Peter Pan cocksureness yet never crosses over into presumptuous arrogance.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

At times, the light radiating from within, kindled for Joan by the voices of the warrior archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine, made me believe Cheek was the ideal age for this role. Predecessors have included the likes of Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, and the aforementioned Redgrave.

It tickled me that most of the other Free Reign players did so well – and that Hensley decreed that they aren’t all men. Five women flit through this surprisingly nimble evening. Particularly delightful was the idea of having the pert and diminutive Alexandria Creech portraying the timorous Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France. The holy coronation at Rheims Cathedral can only happen if Joan can prod him into standing up for himself and forcefully claiming his rightful throne. With Russell Rowe thundering as the Archbishop of Rheims, Holmes glowering as military commander-in-chief Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and both of them towering over Creech, chances for an upswell of valor from the Dauphin look slim.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottCreech can not only hide behind her courtiers when the Dauphin stages his first audience with Joan, she can nearly disappear. But Cheek also towers over this Dauphin – a little bit – so it’s a nifty tug of war for the future king’s favor. Holmes retains his bellicosity when he briefly appears at the English encampment as the Black Prince, but he becomes slightly more sympathetic at the trial as Peter Cauchon, somewhat doubtful that La Pucelle is a witch but absolutely certain that she is the worst of heretics.

Rowe follows a more interesting arc when he changes into an Englishman, becoming the implacable and somewhat stupid Chaplain John de Stogumber, who believes so rabidly in Joan’s witchery that it’s alarming. At the trial, he appears to be a mashup of the Chaplain and the Canon de Courcelles, who zealously brings over 60 charges against The Maid to the bench. Stogumber seethes mightily when Cauchon trims those charges to a mere 12, violently advocating that Joan be burnt at the stake – until he actually sees her on fire. He was so shaken and chastened by the spectacle that I almost pitied him, a truly wrenching turnaround.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

The Maid attracts believers and followers along the way, of course, and the most impressive of these are the hulking David Hayes as Bertrand de Poulengey, Joan’s first champion, and Robert Brafford as the wily renegade Dunois, who shrewdly sizes up her military acumen. Hayes resurfaces at La Pucelle’s side in the pivotal battle scenes before drawing a fearsome, taciturn role as her Executioner. Brafford sheds his good heartedness but retains his craftiness when he becomes The Earl of Warwick. The coolest of Joan’s enemies, Warwick is willing to offer a bounty to anyone who betrays The Maid – not the most dramatic thrust in Shaw’s script, so I suspect the suave and calculating Brafford was the most victimized by cuts to the script.

Every now and then, as in Boeing Boeing, we get the treat of seeing Emmanuel Barbe in a French role. As Robert de Baudricourt, the first nobleman to be won over by Joan’s eloquence and spunk, Barbe helps to get things off to a flavorful start. By the end of the first scene and its exhilarating little coda – and miracle! – this Free Reign production had already captivated me. As Shaw well knew, Joan’s story has that power.