Thursday, March 17, 2005

Julius Caesar

It’s 6:00 pm on Friday, March 11th. We’re climbing into the Matrix after having some fast food pasta in West Bend. We’re about a 40-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee and the show starts at 7:30. We’ll be fine.

Snow. Snow like you wouldn’t believe. Without a doubt, among the most miserable driving conditions imaginable. We’re averaging 35 miles per hour on the highway, but the most important thing is we’re safe.

We walk through the doors of UWM’s Mainstage theatre at approximately 7:35. I can’t tell you much about the first scene of the performance. To me it looked a lot like a theatre lobby. There was a huge piece of art—twigs tied to metal scaffolding with plastic zip-ties in the shape of an urn—had to be 20 feet tall. It said “Rome”, fused with modern industrialism; but bound by the imperialistic ambition that’s no less evident today than it was in 44 BC. Well, it may have said that someone. I was mostly just impressed at the thought of the artist attaching all those sticks with the plastic zip-ties, making sure their tails stuck straight out making it look like a big, fuzzy, leaky urn. Or a theatre-goer’s eye poker. I liked it.

I have a fond memory of studying Julius Caesar as a sophomore in high school. We’re reading through the opening scene with the cobbler jokes and I’m chuckling to myself. Then I look around the room to see if anyone else is getting a kick out of it. Nothing. At the time it sort of made me feel good—like I was in on this esoteric joke, I was getting it as the language went right over the heads of the rest of the class. Looking back, I realize how nerdy that sounds… but who cares. I’m a nerd and I get a kick out of the cobbler scene. Sue me.

Yes, that pun was intended, and no, I did not see the cobbler scene. I did get to see the back of the Soothsayer as he entered through the house doors calling, “Caesar!” I came to regret missing that scene more than the cobbler after seeing Rick Pendzich’s performance in Act II scene 4. The clarity and focus he gave the Soothsayer was impressive.

It’s not long before the usher’s take the opportunity to seat us as Brutus and Cassius talk about mirrors. I have to admit, I was worried. Here on a bare thrust stage were the two actors in suits and scarves just standing around and talking. I’m sure this isn’t the first impression Director Eleanor Holdridge was looking to make, but there it was. I quickly warmed up to the staging, though, as I took in the set design and the costumes and settled in to enjoy the performance. The whole design of the show was superb. Costumes – like I said, suits and scarves mostly – appropriately aristocratic. Caesar’s grey wool coat was astounding – simple but powerful – almost Napoleonic on James Tasse. The battle scenes in the second half of the show saw the actors in desert fatigues and body armor carrying automatic rifles and suggesting trained modern military tactics. The set design was simple and versatile. Translucent flats framed the proscenium and formed an upstage wall the top of which was curved up at each end and in which, just left of center, was a three-paneled revolving door. The senate was indicated by two red banners with the silhouette of an eagle in black. The sound and lighting design worked hand-in-hand, nowhere more noticeably than in scene changes. In the dark, lines from the play flashed on the floor of the stage in projected light (I know he would not be a wolf/But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:/He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.) while a driving but unsettling score, composed by Joshua Horvath, filled the space with a raw “industrial” sound. During intermission, the sounds of distant automatic gunfire and explosions blended with what I thought to be Tom Waits or something very much like his raw style.

Performances that stood out were Joe Foust as Caska. His almost foppish portrayal of Caska as a cane-carrying dandy was original, intelligent and extremely entertaining. Aled Davies as Brutus was precise and well-measured. I could cite several great moments, but what I came away remembering most was Act II scene 1. I’ve never seen an actor read a letter so brilliantly. Michael Milligan as Antony was a master of rhetoric. I can’t imagine a more convincing “Lend me your ears” speech. This performance balanced the ambition of both sides well. Brutus convinced you he was doing what had to be done to preserve Rome, and you could see the scheming Antony under the surface. It’s all there in the script, of course, but all too often Antony is seen as heroically challenging Brutus the murderer. James Tasse as the ghost of Julius Caesar was gripping—stalking Brutus in his amazing wool coat, speaking in amplified whisper through his body mic and answering Brutus’ “Speak to me what thou art” with the piercing scream of an eagle.

All in all, it was an very entertaining and impressive production.


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