Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday Night in Fort Greene: Curious Frog Theatre Company presents "Julius Caesar" in Fort Greene Park

Tonight we were in the leafy expanse of Fort Greene Park to see an engrossing, thoughtful production of Julius Caesar -- with the most incredibly intense fight scenes we've seen in a long time -- by the Curious Frog Theatre Company, whose work we've admired for years.

We've written before about how Julius Caesar has been one of our favorite Shakespeare plays since we first read it more than 46 years ago -- we know a lot of the play by heart -- and we never get tired of seeing productions, even though we've seen several just in the past couple of years.

It was a gorgeous night, and the performance took place on the hilly meadow by the north side of Fort Greene Park, near Myrtle Avenue, surrounded by the huge trees.

The 149-foot granite Doric column over the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument crypt served as a wonderfully apt backdrop to this play of intrigue set in ancient Rome.

The play also resonated with us seeing it on the day rebels overwhelmed Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, with no one sure what the outcome will be of this strike against a charismatic tyrant whose supporters in Tripoli remain angrily defiant.

Yeah, Julius Caesar is definitely still relevant, and the Curious Frog production made that evident. Director Robert J. Dyckman moves things along efficiently, if not bloodlessly. But the full passions, apart from the scenes with the worried Roman wives Portia (Kimberley Wong)

and Calpurnia (Angela Sharp) -- the only female characters, although this production's ethnically diverse cast of seven men and seven women all play roles without regard to gender, which works so well it seems unremarkable -- don't really start to appear until after the assassination.

Then the momentum of the drama, and the passions of the street mobs and the individual leaders, move things with an irresistible momentum to the spectacular long and violent fight scenes (kudos to fight director Rocio Mendez) -- with both men and women going at it with a ferocity that's actually scary -- and the final military battles and the deaths of the major conspirators.

Set in the traditional 44 B.C.E. with Roman garb, the play nevertheless seems timeless. (To us, this play's traditional costumes somehow always come off as more contemporary than Shakespeare played in Elizabethan costumes.)

James Ware is a strong Julius Caesar, perhaps rasher and more in command than others we've seen (in the classic film version, Louis Calhern plays him as a kind of doddering old leader), and Nicholas Urda as Brutus conveys intelligence and wariness.

That wariness is especially directed at Cassius, played here by ReneƩ Rodriguez (director of some of the previous Curious Frog productions we've enjoyed) with an almost sneering skepticism about everything except her own ideas. Director Robert J. Dyckman delivers an effective funeral oration as Mark Antony, though at times Antony's cynicism is only slightly less hidden than Cassius'.

As seems customary with the productions of Julius Caesar we've seen onstage, most of the cast takes on multiple roles, with nearly all the actors except the major characters being members of the mobs of commoners and crowds of Roman citizens as well as the fierce soldiers in battle in the Acts IV and V scenes.

They included Emilio Aquino as Decius Brutus and an assured Octavius); Angela Sharp (Calpurnia/Popilius/Messala​/2nd Commoner); Krystine Summers in the roles of stolid characters like Casca, Lepidus, and Strato as well as a Commoner-Musician
Kimberley Wong (Portia/Soothsayer/Pindarus​/Citizen 2) and Manuel de la Portilla, who's all over the place and seems to be more than one person playing Marullus, Brutus' boy servant Lucius, Caesar’s servant, the senators Cicero and Publius, the soldier Cato and a citizen -- whew!).

Additional excellent cast members, performing with equal energy, were Al Patrick Jo, who made a very good Metellus Cimber as well as Lucillius and Citizen 3); D. Ajane Carlton (Flavius/Artemidorus/Soldie​r 2/Citizen 4); Shae Orrick, playing Trebonius and Volumnius; Holly Dortch as Cinna and Titinius; and Kevin Russo (Caius Ligarius/Octavius’ Servant/Soldier 1).

We were impressed by the minimalist set, which worked fine in this setting, and since Curious Frog Theatre Company is taking this Julius Caesar, as well as Two Gentlemen of Verona, to a dozen parks and other venues in four boroughs, it's obviously necessary.

As darkness descended over Fort Greene Park and this excellent production ended, after depositing our usual donation into, here, a Roman warrior's shield, we walked along to through the park, thinking about, among the many lines we've learned by heart since ninth grade, these, immediately after Caesar's assassination: "How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!" And when we got home, we looked to the New York Times website to see the news from Tripoli.

We're grateful we got to see the Curious Frog Theatre Company do their thing tonight. If you can attend one of the eleven remaining performances of their 2011 summer season, you'll probably be grateful, too.

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