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A Bard Birthday Present — Julius Caesar –Quintessence Theatre at Sedgwick

Alexander Burns is a scholarly lad, and with the right kind of audacity.

Summoning his acquired knowledge of classic and contemporary literature, he enlisted 20th century poet John Masefield (He of “I want to go down the sea again”) and early 18th century literary giant Joseph Addison (He of the Roger DeCoverly commentaries) to augment Shakespeare for a thoughtful, thematically strong production of “Julius Caesar” at West Mt. Airy’s Quintessence Theatre.

Rather than start where Shakespeare does, in Rome at the feast of Lupercal, when the streets surrounding the Capitol were filled with partisans and gossips talking about Caesar being offered and refusing a laurel reef proclaiming him Emperor three time, Burns adds two frontispieces to the Bard’s verse.

You can tell the difference, and not just from lack of familiarity. A passage from Masefield’s “The Tragedy of Pompey the Great,” followed by a sequence from Addison’s “Cato” (George Washington’s favorite play), have marvelous language and rhythm, first-rate work, that does not have the luster or elegance of the supreme master’s.

Masefield and Addison are far from underlings. They are bona fide stars in their individual spheres, and the scenes Burns borrows from them for Quintessence’s “Julius Caesar” lavishes his production with informative texture that provides excellent, enjoyable, and well-chosen context to the taut, telling, and tension-filled drama Shakespeare presents.

Shakespeare is rarely leaner than he is in “Julius Caesar,” a study in democracy, when it is threatened, and when, if not how, to revolt. Good, perceptive, insightful productions like Burns’s even know how to make use of the late-act battle camp sequences that bog down stagings that aren’t as theme-driven.

Burns’s is a thought-provoking gem that makes one consider the panoply of issues that place Caesar in jeopardy, motivate Cassius and others to mutiny, and persuade Brutus, as noble as he is frequently called, to participate in an irreversible act that is painted as necessary but may be as rash as it is revolutionary, and therefore tragic.

What’s missing in 44 B.C. is a rational middle ground. Sound familiar? No one speaks for it, not even the alleged voice of reason, Mark Antony, who schemes and plays canny politics as much as he presents an alternative to Caesar’s expected tyranny or Brutus and Cassius’s populism.

Burns brings out all of this marvelously. His is a great production because you can think of all Shakespeare, and Masefield and Addison before him, is telling you while not losing track or being engaged in the action on stage.

Burns’s cast is mixed in quality, Micahel Brusasco’s Brutus and Michael Ganache’s first-scene Pompey being the strongest, but all performances bring home the important ideas that create unrest, foment conspiracy, seemingly insist on precipitous action, and illustrate the confusion of proceeding without a plan to move on if you’re victorious.

Masefield, Addison, and Shakespeare are one in portraying Caesar as a danger to Roman freedom and democracy. All three geniuses show him ready and willing to supplant a republic with a dictatorship, a heady issue at any time. Masefield and Addison may have taken their cues from Shakespeare. Burns fuses their sensibilities. He orders and organizes them to make a stronger case than Shakespeare can make alone. Then he lets the Bard to his competent work/ From Second One, when Gamache, in beautifully modulated readings, begins telling of Pompey’s fears. Gamache not only sets a pace and tone for Burns’s staging, but he provides its clarity and forthright outlook. An obviously intellectual “Julius Caesar” is going to be accessible and dramatically exciting as well.

Early scenes make you listen because you know it’s not Shakespeare. Admittedly, I recognized the Scene Two Addison immediately while I had to guess at the opening Masefield — Heaven forbid I should condescend to read a program beyond cast before a show; Thank goodness I know “Cato.” — but whatever my nerdish recall, the new material sang as enlightening and as a fitting preamble to the tempestuous, lion-laden Lupercal and its aftermath.

Gamache and company, particularly Tom Carman and Julia Frey, create excitement and interest in the Pharsalia scene. David Pica and Kimie Muroya continue it in “Cato’s” Utica. Then comes the Shakepeare, and it all blends into one grand story chocked with wonderful verse and steeped in drama that needs to be considered by all nations and all generations.

I don’t want to labor parallels to today. Mostly because they’d seem exaggerated or, worse, play into the self-satisfied and self-congratulating who don’t realize that any extreme, especially one that institutes conformity and compulsion, is wrong. As Masefield, Addision, and Shakespeare show us.

I do want to say that unbridled partisanship that leaves no heroes in either camp, seems devoid of workable ideas, is dependent on orthodox adherence to doctrine with no regard for common sense or Realpolitik, puts smug, self-righteous trend and fashion ahead of obvious business at hand, allows minutia to cloud a whole picture, and cannot find a common thread to bind an allegedly common people is doomed to perpetually spinning wheels, negative inertia, and decline in ideals that contribute to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This, in a general way, is what “Julius Caesar” addresses, and addresses well. Especially now that Burns makes the usually autonomous Shakespeare one of a brilliant and complementary triumvirate.

Whichever author Burns taps to tell Caesar’s, or 44 BC Rome’s, story, he proceeds with a straightforward approach that puts emphasis on the tenor or logic of a speaker’s point of view. Arguments, for and against Caesar, register plainly for our consideration. Pompey the Great, Cato, Cassius, and Brutus all have complaints based on observation and contemplation. Except as regards Cassius, Caesar sees himself and beloved and essential to Rome’s well-being. Mark Antony is the ultimate politician, more deliberate than even Cassius, more willing to say what the throngs will respond to upon hearing and being all things to all men. Both Cassius are Antony are canny fellows, but Cassius is all emotion, include spite, while Antony is a pragmatist who genuinely loves Caesar but equally values a place in the Roman hierarchy.

The sharpness with which Burns and his cast have delineated the characters, their motives, and point of view admirably drives this production. In addition to actual war, there’s a constant war of words, attitudes, and appropriate action.

Listen carefully, and it will stun how often Cassius, the least charismatic of the lead figures, surveys conditions most shrewdly and offers the best suggestions. Among Brutus’s tragic flaws is his constant thwarting and reversing of moves Cassius wisely, if self-servingly recommends. In this way, the noblest Roman of them all steps on his own tunic and stabs himself in both sandals. Patrick Mulcahy’s lustrous production of “Julius Caesar” for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival made this abundantly clear. Separately, Burns hews to the same vision, with the same effect, a distinct understanding of why Brutus is doomed along with his conception of what Rome could and should be. Only he acts selflessly and with higher purpose. His downfall is he lacks the cunning and judgment to bring that purpose to fruition. His idealism cannot thrive against the astute strategizing of Cassius, on which he puts the kibosh, or the foxy opportunism of Antony, who knows how to get what he wants and makes the most from the advantage the guileless Brutus gave him by allowing him to speak second following Caesar’s death.

Shakespeare, the original psychologist and so much better than his scientific brethren of later centuries, knew human nature and how to portray it on stage. Alexander Burns is crafty in seizing on all of Shakespeare’s leads, letting the Bard’s observations and characterizations dominate the day — as well as Addison’s or Masefield’s — and providing a “Julius Caesar” that shows how conditions and personalities intersect to make history. And, for all but Octavius, who becomes the first emperor in a decline-oriented dynasty, tragedy.

This a smart production, intelligently conceived, and astutely presented. On the Quintessence program is the terse sentence, “All republics fall.” Burns earns leagues of credit for illustrating how that might happen in this absorbing look at the toots and beginnings of Rome’s topple.

Key performances help him.

Michael Gamache has shown his classical mettle in several productions by Quintessence, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, and the Delaware Shakespeare Festival. He humanizes classic characters, given them articulation with excellent readings that convey meaning, accent the shrewdest notes, and provide texture beyond his character’s words. His voice might be refined and unconversational, but his manner is natural and his delivery invites brisk give and take of dialogue. As noted, he establishes Burns’s production in his opening moments as Pompey the Great and gives class and reason to a skein of small parts in the Shakespearean section.

Another Michael, Michael Brusasco, steps forward to jell Burns’s concept in the Bard’s portion.

Yes, the “Julius Caesar” cast works as a well-oiled ensemble, but it is Brusasco who creates a character that brings home the ideal of tragedy and the sense of nobility exercising folly.

His Brutus manages to be as straightforward as Burns’s approach and as full of nuance. You see his turmoil regarding the state of Roman politics, and freedom, yet his reluctance to do anything rash, disrespectful, or disruptive to Rome’s customary way of settling contention.

Brutus is neither a dedicated revolutionary nor vindictive malcontent. He is a man troubled by circumstance and change that go against Roman tradition and look to have no reversal by the usual means, conference in and consent of a democratically constituted Senate.

Caesar, though respected by Brutus, is seizing imperial power. A republic of the many is to be supplanted by the rule of one. It’s more than he can abide. In his heart and will, he would love to counter such a situation. But he is not by nature a man of action and doesn’t know how. Cassius teaches him, so suddenly presenting and enlisting Brutus in a solution, the noblest Roman is a conspirator before he has time to consider all that means.

Brusasco neatly and affectingly conveys that dilemma. His Brutus is a deliberate man who has no chance to deliberate. A plan is afoot, and his slight acknowledgement that such a plan seems necessary, is enough for Cassius to embroil him in it and foment it before it is too late, and Brutus thinks of a better way.

As Brutus goes, Cassius’s conspiracy, and the assassination it entails, goes. Brusasco wavers and worries with dramatic effect that makes Brutus understood. He is patrician and a leader by nature, traits that will be counterproductive when Antony turns the Roman mob against Caesar’s slaughterers, and Brutus remains certain and executive in a field in which Cassius is more suited, the vicious administration of government and war.

Brusasco lives Brutus’s tragedy, which gives depth to Burns’s already impressive approach to “Julius Caesar’s” overarching lessons.

Paul Hebron strengthens Burns’s telling by demonstrating Caesar’s charisma and way with his people while never stinting on the ruler’s tetchy side, his expectation to command, be obeyed, and be an unchallengeable law unto himself.

As was said about Gamache, Hebron humanizes Caesar. He makes him likeable and reasonable. Until he is crossed. Then the despot comes out. Hebron lets us see that tyrant in his authoritarian ways, his capriciousness, and his vanity.

Hebron’s performance makes you like Caesar enough that the conspirators’ action, though justified by what is heard from Shakespeare, Masefield, and Addison, makes you as sad as it make you momentarily satisfied. Hebron makes it seem as if, with enough numbers sounding a differing opinion, Caesar’s ambitions could be quelled or at least controlled. Again, an actor contributes in a way to underscore the tragedy Shakespeare creates.

I called Burns audacious in this tome’s first sentence. A prime example, and the pinnacle of tragedy, is the director’s choice to have Caesar grab Brutus’s hand and thrust Brutus’s knife in the most vulnerable place between the lowers ribs as Hebron intones the famous, “E tu, Bruté. It is as If Caesar acknowledges his wrongs and repents them by striking the killing rent himself. “E tum Bruté” takes on a context of “If you think I deserve this fate, Brutus, then I must.” It foments a resolution to accept the conspirators’ judgment. I am not sure I agree with the choice, but I admire the guts — no pun — it took to make it and the affecting way it was enacted.

Mary Tuomanen is a wily, persuasive Cassius, a person who knows how to stir pots of bring his intended business to an efficient, effective boil. Tuomanen has to fight a self-conscious tendency to cue how clever she thinks — knows? — she’s being while acting, but in spite of the inner winks and nods in which she indulges, she always makes her characters interesting and often surprises with fresh, illuminating line readings.

Tuomanen’s Cassius gives Brusaco’s Brutus no chance to resist. He catches his ear, sets the scheme, whets an appetite to participate, then goes strategically among others of like mine to have them meet at Brutus’s home and accompany him to the assassination. Just as he arranges to have the same party, with Brutus, come to Caesar’s door and escort him to his murder.

Cassius’s conniving and organizational skills stand out in Tuomanen’s performance.

So does Cassius’s sincerity. He may become the second banana to Brutus, hut Tuomanen shows Cassius to have honest aims that spur him as much as his jealous or meretricious motives.

It is Cassius who knows what to do in most instances. He will see Caesar killed. He would have killed Mark Antony, too, and forbid Antony to address the masses at Caesar’s funeral.

Brutus overrules him on all regarding Antony, He also prevails when countermanding Cassius’s correct and superior military plan, leading to confusion, a rout, and suicides that might have been prevented. Even Antony and Octavius are stunned when the conspirators choose to bring their forces to their ground instead of remaining in a more defensible position and making Antony come to then.

Brutus knows how to abash Cassius, and Tuomanen lets you see the change, made in disinclination but geared to maintain unity and give Brutus the sway on which his misguided belief in his wisdom insists.

Brett Ashley Robinson’s Antony doesn’t seem a match for Brusasco’s grandeur or Cassius’s street smarts in the earliest scenes of the Shakespeare section. Robinson seems more like a puppy-like companion to Caesar than she does a proven general and potential leader.

That changes suddenly and unquestionably when Robinson launches into Antony’s funeral oration. From nowhere comes the intensity of Tuomanen and the perfectly measured phrasing of Gamache. After the beautifully rendered centerpiece speech, Robinson retains the fire and solidity of her biggest moment and grows into a potent and nimbly sly Antony.

David Pica does well in several parts, especially as Addison’s Cato and Brutus’s servant, Lucius. Tom Carman, always a welcome presence adds further maturity and range to his repertoire, scoring importantly as Octavius Caesar and as Julius Caesar’s fearful, prescient wife, Calpurnia. Julia Frey, Anita Holland, and Maya Lerman complete a flexible, versatile, and able cast. Kimie Muroya has an especially fine scene as the messenger, Titinius, whose news, alas, arrives after it has already been disastrously misconstrued.

“Julius Caesar” run in repertory with Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” through Saturday, April 28, at the Quintessence Theatre Group’s home, the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Shows are set for 7:30 p.m. April 12, 14, 18, 20, 22, and 27, 10 a.m. April 12, 19, and 27, and 2 p.m. April 28. Tickets range from $35 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-987-4450 or 1-866-811-4111 or by visiting https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10175784.

 

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