Thursday, 14 May 2015

J. Caesar rips with venom & scheming & betrayal

Backdrop considerations : Perhaps some personal bias springs from all the hype about the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the next, and first woman, U.S. President. Filtered for me through Helen Mirren's absolutely spell-binding interpretation of Elizabeth I in the British 4-hour mini-series from 2005 I watched last night. (An even more powerful interpretation than Glenda Jackson's superb 1972 rendition of Bess for Oz public television.) Coupled with the fact of five strong women who so impacted my life growing up, from a suffragette grandmother who was 50 before women got the vote in 1920 through my Phi Beta Kappa mother and my older sisters who are feminist intellects. Not to forget other modern women powerhouses on the international stage either : Golda Meir. Margaret Thatcher. Indira Gandhi. Benazir Bhutto. Angela Merkel. Aung San Suu Kiy.

Put all of them together and they form my personal prism through which I view Tracey Power's second all-women production currently in repertory opposite Miss Shakespeare -- this one J. Caesar.  Given that prism effect, I come away somewhat less ga-ga than many reviewers on the "political" end of professional theatre. "Ga-ga" is just that. A kind of fawning as I see it. But that is altogether different from the awe and wonder I feel in my gut at her vision and talents. Twice now in two nights I have clapped and huzzah'd with vigour and admiration. Power's theatre company Escape Artists' achievement in these pieces is notable less for its gender aspect, I submit, than for the sheer power and force of creativity and stage action regardless.

In J. CaesarShakespeare's Julius Caesar is re-set 300 years in the future with virtually all the world's men gone.  Women, reborn as tribal warriors, are 100% in charge. There is nothing that suggests to me how such a dramatic conceit is provocatively brave or daring, as many seem to feel. WS used all men in his shows. Such was the law and custom of the time, more than just the proverbial patriarchal "rule of thumb". So an all-femme cast in 2015 performing these heretofore beefy roles as women who are "hard twist" like steer-rope is a concept, if anything, possibly quite overdue i.m.o. 

The current show : The 1599 WS original featured 34 individual characters plus assorted "senators, citizens, guards, attendants &c." in a 5-act, 18-scene play that ran up to three hours and more. Under Power's pen and scalpel, the result in J. Caesar  is a 1-act, nearly-continuous-scene 90-minute affair featuring seven actors and, somewhat bemusingly, the soundboard techie hi-lited some 15 feet up thru slats in the stage's backwall.

As noted by the esteemed Elizabethan scholar A. L. (Leslie) Rowse, the original WS manuscript has always been curious from the get-go because its namesake disappears half-way through the show. And the balance is a set-up, what to make of the various co-conspirators, most notably Brutus. Despite Mark Anthony's famous sardonic potboiler of a eulogy, Rowse tells us "We are assured that Brutus was an in the conspiracy against Caesar : he was the only one moved by what he considered to be the public interest, as against the others, who were moved by envy or spleen or personal resentment." Hmnnn. The "public interest". And how did all that work out? No different in J. Caesar than in the original Julius, no gender or temporal difference in outcomes : chaos, multiple suicides, a full-scale civil war. Seems Lord Of The Flies is the stuff of humans when tribal instincts take hold -- then, now, 300 years on. 

Now to cut nearly 50% from a Shakespeare script could easily be a fool's errand. But not in the scultping hands of Tracey Power and Escape Artists. 

Fact is Julius Caesar is no one's favourite WS play because it is relentless in its negative energy. From Caesar's calculating public humility -vs- private hubris to the shrill egomania of co-assassins Cassius and Casca to the multiple suicides that end the March madness, there is precious little to cheer or marvel about other than The Bard's ever-priceless verse. And Escape Artists pull it off admirably.

What works here : Three elements primarily make this production remarkable and memorable. (1) James MacDonald's staging and the jiu-jitsu choreography of Paul Gelineau. (2) Steve Charles' world-beat percussive and concussive soundscape of hip-hop riffs and rich electro-twang. (3) Caroline Cave as Brutus with her constant verve and voice that is both supple and stentorian and rife with consistent if slightly misguided passion for her cause.

The challenge not always equal'd by the cast in all instants is to project Shakespeare's lines rather than shout and shriek them to show the urgency, panic, and self-righteous scheming that is the substance of his script. Having said that, when it came to WS's most famous lines and speeches in this play, the cast generally is to be congratulated for not overplaying or "announcing" them, which is an obvious tendency with improperly coached actors.

As Caesar, Amanda Lisman brings the same focus and force-field dynamic she gave to Judith in Miss Shakespeare. Casca played by Pippa Mackie was a cacophonous mix of jealous opportunist and wide-eyed naif delightfully struck. Erin Moon earns a shout-out for her Portia portrayal particularly -- it was visceral -- but also her steady Calpurnia. In all, solid performances by the entire troupe.

Who gonna like : This show is aimed more for diehard WS fans than the whimsical "saucy musical" Miss Shakespeare. Lovers of WS's patented rhythms and rhymes and cadences and metaphors will leave well-bethumped with his immortal words. As noted, the jiu jitsu fight and warrior sequences were breathtaking, lit.& fig., aided cleverly by the rave downbeats and crowd-echo shouts and murmurs. Escape Artists offer viewers both aspects of their company's name in marvelous measure.

Particulars : Created and produced by The Escape Artists in association with Kay Meek Centre. Performed by The Escape Artists troupe in repertory with another play, Miss Shakespeare. Remaining shows of J. Caesar scheduled for May 15, 16 and 17 @ Performance Works on Granville Island kitty-corner from the Granville Island Hotel. Tickets and schedules available at [Both shows move to West Vancouver's Kay Meek Centre May 21-29. Tickets & schedules there by phone at 604.981.6335 or via]

Production Crew : Director James MacDonald.  Musical Director Steve Charles.  Fight Choreographer Paul Gelineau. Assistant Fight Director Ryan Bolton. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set & Costume Design Cory Sincennes.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Producer Barbara Tomasic.  Production Manager Leah Foreman.  Costume Assistant Stephanie Kong.  Costume Assistant Stacie Steadman.  Venue Technician Daniel Tessy.  Program Designer Stu Power.  Publicist Sammie Gough.  Photographer Emily Cooper.

Performers :  Caroline Cave.  Medina Hahn.  Amanda Lisman.  Pippa Mackie.  Susinn McFarlen.  Erin Moon.  Tracey Power.


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