I have come to praise Julius Caesar, not bury it.
Shakespeare In the Ruins celebrates its 20th anniversary season with Caesar, back once again in their original homebase at the ruins of the Trappist Monastery in St. Norbert. And they have a winner on their hands with Shakespeare's tale of political intrigue, civil conflict, and backstabbing (and frontstabbing, and sidestabbing...).
Under Sarah Constible's smart, playfully creative direction, the story of Caesar's assassination (and no, I'm not giving a "spoiler warning" for a play that's 414 years old) and the civil war that ensues gets a fresh take.
Constible moves the action to a Rome that very much resembles Canada in 1970 (thanks in large part to subtle but precise design work by Janelle Regalbuto and Wanda Farian). This is, we're reminded, a time when Canada was ruled by a charismatic leader, though one accused of arrogance; civil discord manifested itself in the FLQ crisis; and the limits of our leaders' actions were summed up in the phrase, "Just watch me."
The venue for Julius Caesar (SITR)
A radio report at the play's beginning (starting with theme music that'll amuse CBC listeners) informs us that Caesar, while popular with the masses, is becoming increasingly dictatorial. Later, in the office of the firebrand politician Cassius (played in a commanding performance by Marina Stephenson Kerr), a television shows us the familiar images of martial law in the streets of Montreal.
Along with conniving politicos and an easily distracted populace, this all serves to remind us that this four century-old play, about events that happened more than 2,000 years ago, still carries an insightful glimpse into the life of politics, and how politics shapes our lives.
Constible uses the space of the ruins cleverly in her briskly paced, 140-minute production. We follow "parliamentary pages" from location to location, and the natural beauty of the site provides some stunning scenic effects. Antony's famed "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." speech, for example, got a beautiful sunset as a backdrop on opening night, suitably framing Andrew Cecon's powerful performance.
Toby Hughes (L) and Rob McLaughlin get a little bloody. (Leif Norman)
The pages who guide us - Toby Hughes and Ryan Miller - provide plenty of comical schtick as they usher us along. It's certainly crowd-pleasing, and undeniably very funny, but does have the effect of undercutting the drama of some scenes. It could - and at the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, I'll say probably should - be dialed back.
The production's other - and more significant - tonal misstep is, unfortunately, the key assassination scene. While I generally agree that a populace that has suffered through Game of Thrones
has seen enough violence, this pivotal scene feels curiously bloodless - and not just because of the relative lack of stage blood. It should be a horrific, brutal act of murder - but instead, it feels several cuts shy of "Caesar's three-and-thirty wounds."
The cast of nine, meanwhile - all playing multiple roles - turn in solid performances all around. Kevin Klassen's Brutus - really the play's central character, as he struggles with questions of honour, duty, and morality - is effectively conflicted. Steven Ratzlaff gives his Caesar a charmingly Trudeauesque swagger in his entrance, and Rob McLaughlin perfectly captures the essence of the "cynical political insider" as Casca. Michelle Boulet does a nice turn as Caesar's "drama queen" - though ultimately prophetic - wife Calpurnia, and Ross McMillan brings comic likeability to many of his supporting roles, especially Cinna the Conspirator.
Altogether, it's an energetic, accessible Julius Caesar
that earns its laurels.Shakespeare in the Ruins' Julius Caesar runs at the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park in St. Norbert until June 29.