Tag Archives: Kristin Varnell

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.

Viking Queen “Lear” Remains True to the Bard

Review: Lear by Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had more than a couple of productions of King Lear in the Metrolina area during the new millennium – plus a couple of offshoots like Lear ReLoaded and Lear Unplugged in Boiling Springs and Davidson. So it would be natural for you to suspect that Lear, from the young Free Reign Theatre Company, is some sort of mashup, modernization, or abridgement of William Shakespeare’s towering tragedy.

Not so. The title has been shortened for a different reason: old Lear is now a woman. The production at Spirit Square clocks in at about three hours and 15 minutes, including intermission, fairly consonant with the lengths of King Lear presentations by the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival in 2011 at McGlohon Theatre and the NC Shakespeare Lear of 2008 up in High Point, both starring Graham Smith. Free Reign’s edit actually provides more Lear than the 2006 Classic Theatre of Charlotte production in NoDa, when director Tony Wright performed deft surgery on the script.

You don’t have to twist or contort your expectations to enjoy this Lear. Directed by Heather Bucsh, the Free Reign take on Shakespearean production is conspicuously low-budget, with respect to scenery, compared to the others I’ve mentioned. Yet Bucsh has also designed the Viking costumes – as pointedly as she directs – so we accustom ourselves to watching palace scenes, royal inhospitality, and eye gougings played out with little more than picnic tables.

The play and the players are the thing, beginning with Lisa Essex as Lear. Hitting the right note with this monarch in the Bard’s opening scene is a supreme test, both for a director and an actor tackling the title role for the first time. Questions already lurk in the playscript for them to grapple with. What kind of relationships has Lear established with his daughters? Why is he dividing his kingdom? And perhaps most puzzling of all, after calling upon his daughters to compete for their inherited portions on the basis of how much they love daddy, why does he decide the results of the competition while the daughters are still competing?

Maybe it’s useful, then, that Essex struggles to project the age, the command, and the explosive presence of the eccentric king. It doesn’t help that she is neither big nor tall – nor guarded by the 100, 50, or even 25 riotous knights that Shakespeare tells us are serving His Highness. We can gloss over questions of plausibility quite easily as we try getting used to the concept that this woman is truly master of all the lands she is divvying up.

As Lear diminishes in her worldly power, becomes more isolated and disrespected, finally losing her sanity, Essex steadily grows in dramatic power. By the time Lear is raving mad on the stormy heath, challenging winds and hurricanoes to do their worst, Essex is near her peak. But it’s when the storm is over that we see this Lear’s madness most vividly. Essex and Bucsh don’t pick up on every nuanced life lesson that the humbled queen is learning about “elemental man” from her Fool and Edgar (disguised as a crazed beggar), but I’ve never seen a Lear that’s more out of his mind than Essex looks out of hers.

There is a breathtaking depth to her downfall and disintegration, so when we move from the sin-and-punishment portion of her story to her grace-and-forgiveness reunion with Cordelia, the good daughter he has wronged, it’s as profoundly moving as any Lear I’ve seen.

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Even in the grand opening, Bucsh and her cast impress me when we look away from the throne. For one thing, we don’t have to look far. Goneril and Regan, along with their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, are scrunched together at that picnic table. So we quickly get a sense of their evil conspiratorial kinship – with a hint of the mutual enmity and jealousy that will kill them both. It’s there when they speak and when they listen. Kristin Varnell looks mean and barbaric as Goneril, even as she sits closest to her dad at the table, and Rebecca Gossage is the essence of wantonness as Regan, more slyly concealed near the far end of the group.

There’s a more substantial contrast between Albany and Cornwall, where the good-natured cluelessness of Nathan Hall as Albany is markedly different from Mathew Schantz’s scowling distemper as Cornwall. But what impresses me most about Busch’s work is what she does in the parallel plot, where the Earl of Gloucester is as deceived in his valuation of his sons, Edgar and Edmund, as Lear is with her daughters. Here Free Reign’s gender switch actually improves Shakespeare’s fearful symmetry.

Robert Brafford beautifully handles the slimy cunning of the bastard Edmund, a villain who addresses us directly more than any other Shakespeare schemer this side of Iago. He gets a warrior look to his beard’s coiffure that sets him apart from all but Schantz as Cornwall, relishing the competing attentions of Goneril and Regan as much as cozening his father and brother. Russell Rowe mutes the foolishness of Gloucester, not making a banquet out of the Earl’s reliance on astrological portents. That only slightly abbreviates his learning curve when he’s blinded – while his pitifulness remains intact.

What will stand out most for me when I recall this Lear is the beautifully reimagined performance of Katie Bearden as Edgar – the best Edgar that I have seen. Anywhere. Her role unfolds in three stages: hoodwinked Edgar, the fugitive Tom of Bedlam beggar, and champion warrior Edgar. The first stage is unremarkable enough, with Bearden choosing to be naïve and credulous instead of bookish and trusting, the way we see him most often. Magic begins when Bearden transforms into the Bedlam beggar, a howling combination of ‘60s icons Janis Joplin and Tiny Tim that somehow combines savagery with vulnerability.

I won’t begin to describe the look of Bearden as the disguised Edgar who emerges from hiding to challenge brother Edmund to mortal combat, but I’ll say this: revenge in a Shakespearean production has never tasted sweeter to me. As a result, my focus shifted slightly as the multiple denouements played out in Lear. I found myself as invested in Edgar’s revenge upon his brother as I usually am in the vicious Edmund-Goneril-Regan love triangle – notwithstanding Charles Holmes’s mediocre fight choreography when the brother gladiators clashed.

Sadly, Essex’s real-life daughter, Madeleine Essex, didn’t rise to even that level on opening night. Bucsh had her looking sweet and pure compared to her sibs, and the younger Essex took her portrayal in a fine direction, toward modesty and shyness, with perhaps a pinch of trepidation.

If only Lear’s dying description of Cordelia’s voice as “soft, gentle, and low” hadn’t pushed her to the verge of whispering in the opening scene. And perhaps a livelier, more spontaneous “No cause, no cause” would have made my tears flow more freely in the luminous reunion. Yet there were moments – startling moments – when Essex showed us just how loud and emotional Cordelia can be.

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No such inconsistencies dogged of Courtney Harris’s bluster as Kent, the loyal knight that Lear banishes with Cordelia, though she could register more chastening and enlightenment at the end of her journey. And I’ve been seeing excellent portrayals by women of Lear’s saucy, prickly Fool for so long that Amy Schiede Cheek’s winsome élan in the role comes as no shock, even with her ram’s horns and lyre. The suspense nowadays is whether productions will deal with the Bard’s failure to tell us the Fool’s ultimate fate. Bucsh and Cheek do tackle that matter decisively.

The best portent of the evening happened when I first walked into Duke Energy Theater and found the place nearly sold-out on opening night. Evidently, word-of-mouth about Free Reign has spread, unfazed by Lear in any form. The quality of this work ought to keep them coming, even if the actors come out for their bows at 11:15pm.

Just one point of order: since you’ve changed the gender of all her personal pronouns, could you please stop calling this queen “Sir”? I don’t think either Queen Elizabeth was addressed that way.