Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Afternoon in Prospect Park: EBE Ensemble presents "Julius Caesar" at Shakespeare in the Pagoda

Early this afternoon we were in Central Park for the 1 p.m. show in this season's new Shakespeare in the Pagoda series at (of course) the Music Pagoda.

The EBE Ensemble presented a taut and thoughtful version of Julius Caesar with a terrific cast under the direction of Kristine Ayers.

The costumes were contemporary/casual, casting was somewhat gender-neutral, and the production made effective use of the setting, which is really quite good for classic theater, as last year's production of Henry IV and Henry V by the Rebellious Subjects company proved.

From our previous experience at the Music Pagoda, we knew enough to bring a little blanket (or a chair, for those not schlepping on two trains from as far away as Williamsburg) because the ground is mostly black dirt.

But it's very comfortable and cozy, and off the beaten track enough so that there aren't many of the distractions that outdoor theater is prey to. (The biggest one today came late in the play when a girl about six ran ahead of his father up the pagoda's steps to play, unaware that she was briefly in the middle of a stage production.)

Early on, a few actors were egging on the crowd to cheer for Caesar. We at first thought they were doing warm-up exercised but as they were shooed away in the play's opening lines by a Roman official, it was clear that they represented the frenzy of the mob that makes Julius Caesar so frightening as a political document.

The way the crowd is whipped up into a frenzy, first against Caesar and in favor of Brutus, Cassius and their fellow conspirators, and then, turning on a dime after Mark Antony's clever (and passionately controlled) sophistry at the fallen leader's funeral, they run to attack the conspirators, is one of this production's triumphs.

The actors use the audience and setting effectively, but the most chilling scene is the mob tearing to pieces the poet Cinna because he's unlucky enough to have the same name as one of the conspirators who kill Caesar. (He's the Roman Shirley Sherrod, with the crowd the Tea Party high on Fox News, without benefit of the complete videotape.)

With the exception of the small roles of Portia and Calpurnia, the wives of Brutus and Caesar, in scenes expressing their fears on the morning of the Ides of March, Julius Caesar is nominally entirely male, but we loved the gender-neutral casting of the title role (and a few others) here. Camille Mazurek has the gravitas and charismatic bearing of the great Julius, and giving the role of Calpurnia to Montgomery Sutton, who plays it as an intelligent but unheeded spouse treated mostly as a boy toy, was really a wonderful touch.

Julius Caesar is probably the Shakespeare play whose text we know best. Back in the spring of 1965, Mrs. Sanjour at Meyer Levin Junior High School 285 in East Flatbush made class 9SPE2 each get up and recite a lengthy monologue (we picked the one by Brutus that opens Act II) and recall its lines and others.

That was old-fashioned teaching, but Mrs. Sanjour also took us on a bus trip one day to Greenwich Village, where we watched the 1953 star-filled film version at a revival showing at a West 8th Street movie house, either the Eighth Street Playhouse or the Art. (Our teacher told us to spot anachronisms, and there's not only the tolling of the clock in ancient Rome - Shakespeare's doing - but at one point Brutus is seen leafing through a page-filled hardcover book rather than a scroll.)

We last taught Julius Caesar in the summer of 2006 at the School of Visual Arts. It seemed freshly relevant in light of the Iraq war. The play deals with issues of leadership and conscience, of political ambition and idealism and how they get mixed up. Brutus is the play's fulcrum and his death at the drama's end, mourned by his enemy and vanquisher Mark Antony as "the noblest Roman of them all," is both inevitable and deeply disturbing. Today's production at the Music Pagoda brought out Julius Caesar in all its facets as both human and political tragedy.

The troupe made good use of the audience, bringing some of us up to circle Caesar's body at his funeral, where Mark Antony wept over our assassinated leader, showed his bloody garment, and told us of Caesar's generous bequeaths to us, the people of Rome.

The show, sponsored in part by Green Mountain Energy (which had a table today) and Arizona Iced Tea, featured among the cast directed by Kristine Ayers (along with the alternating Romeo and Juliet, directed by Dev Bondarin) many familiar faces to Prospect Park area residents, including ensemble members like the magnetic Montgomery Sutton (Rebellious Subjects’ Henry IV/V at the Music Pagoda; Gallery Players’ King Lear and Candide) as a callow and impetuous Octavius Caesar and in a sweet turn as a worried Calpurnia;

a bearded Eric Alba (EBE’s Buddha Nosh and Russian Roulette) portrayed a complex and conflicted Brutus, a good man, well-meaning but easily swayed and ultimately too naive to be an effective leader;

and Joshua Luria (Rebellious Subjects’ Henry IV/V) as Casca, who's plain-spoken but in the end not too dumb to comprehend the implications of the conspirators' actions.

The play also featured guest artists Camille Mazurek (Pulse Ensemble Theater’s Twelfth Night and Ladies in Retirement) doing a magnificent job in the title role, creating a portrait good enough to do what the best of actors playing Caesar do, which is to dominate the play's action even after the assassination (she also appears at the end as Strato, the friend who assists Brutus's suicide);

Nick Reinhardt(Rebellious Subjects’ Henry IV/V) as Mark Antony, by turns cynical, oleaginous, inflammatory and masterful;

Len Rella (Gallery Players’ Candide;Gorilla Rep’s Julius Caesar and Joan of Arc), playing the wily Cassius looking very lean and hungry and also petty, sneaky, easily offended - but not so much a manipulator that he doesn't feel pain and sympathy at others' distress;

Ugo Chukwu (The Heights’ Players Take Me Out) as stolid Messala, and effectively as Flavius and other players in the Roman streets.
Jessica Rothenberg (The Huntington Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard; Gallery Players’ King Lear) does effective triple duty as a hapless Lepidus, Artemidorus the failed informer, and most brilliantly in her brief turn as Portia, showing womanly steel despite her frail condition (there's a suggestion that Portia has suffered a stroke).

Elizabeth Spano (whom we saw last year in Curious Frog’s Romeo & Juliet) on the other side of Prospect Park) and who reprises that role in the Pagoda this summer) is the soothsayer ("Beware the Ides of March") and Brutus's protective servant Lucius; and Jessica Frey (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles) plays Cinna and some really riled-up Romans.

The play's costume design was by Amanda Jenks, with original music by Nicholas R. Wright, fight choreography by Turner Smith, and live foley design by Joshua B. Jenks and Nancy Valladares. On Julius Caesar, director Kristine Ayers was joined by assistant director and stage manager Mandee Kulaga.

According to the promo material,
EBE Ensemble is dedicated to developing and presenting new and unique works of theatre. They believe that making theater accessible enhances a community and that, through an ensemble-based approach, they can better present quality theatre that strives for an emotional truth. Now finishing their third season, EBE Ensemble has produced several new plays and adaptations and created the “You Fill in the Blank” play festival and competition in addition to the award-winning national one-act festival, Elephants on Parade.

For us, Julius Caesar at the Music Pagoda proved a fast-moving, exciting, and powerful production of Shakespeare's most readable play, a political thriller with ominous overtones for today.

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