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Julius Caesar Theater Review - Treachery and Intrigue Simmers and Explodes at the Theatricum Botanicum's Production of Julius Caesar

By Peter A. Balaskas

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Julius Caesar (Carl Palmer, bottom right) comforts Calpurnia (Abby Craden), while Marc Antony (Aaron Hendry, center)and Brutus (Mike Peebler, top) look on

(Topanga, CA) June, 2009 – Deep within the woods of Topanga, California, whispers of betrayal and liberty resonate with power. Two Roman senators---Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus---scheme to kill their charismatic emperor, Julius Caesar. One is driven by blind ambition; the other is motivated to prevent a potential dictatorship. But these two political architects soon realize that with ambition comes a price, and that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. What better place to show such primal human passions than at an outdoor amphitheatre’s production of William Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR. The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum's production of betrayal, intrigue, and revenge simmers and explodes with fast paced direction and superb acting, especially by the two stars, Mark Peebler and Melora Marshall.

All is glorious in Rome. Julius Caesar has made a significant, military victory and the people have requested that their savior be elected as their ruler. But Caesar refuses three times out of humility and modesty. Or is it legitimate? These are the doubts that plague a group of envious conspirators, led by the power hungry Cassius. They also fear that giving total power to Caesar may lead to a dictatorship. Fear leads to thoughts of murder, and they need the help of Caesar’s good friend, Brutus, to legitimize the act. Cassius convinces a relunctant Brutus that murdering Caesar would result in Rome’s salvation, resulting in a chain of events where all parties involved---from the senators to the slaves--- become pawns to their own fates.

Directing a cast of almost forty actors, Artistic Director Ellen Geer masterfully leads and choreographs the scenes with incredible fluidity and ease, tightening Shakespeare’s text within two hours. She utilizes every inch of the amphitheatre: stage, audience aisles and seats, the balcony looming over the theatre entranceway, and even the grassy fields surrounding the left and right sections of the stage. This production elevates both the action and the character drama of this story, highlighting the sophistication of both Geer’s direction and the acting by the play's stars.

Roman senators, led by Casca (Alan Blumenfeld,left), Decius (Matt Ducati, right) and Brutus (Mike Peebler, center foreground) attack Caesar (Carl Palmer, center background)

With regard to Melora Marshall and Mark Peebler, we are witness to the two faces of political treachery. On one side of the coin is blind ambition, and the casting of Melora Marshall is brilliant because of her uncanny ability to physically and emotionally disappear into this male role. Clothed in drab robes, hair wrapped in a bandana, body thin, tense, and twitchy, Marshall looks less human and more like a creature whose desires and obsession for power have already consumed her character. Her penetrating, almost bulging eyes that dart around for any sign of danger, Marshall’s performance is very reminiscent of another famous character consumed by obsession: Andy Serkis’s Gollum from the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. Cassius is clearly at the end of emotional stability, almost in a schizophrenic sort of way. However, Marshall’s seductive eloquence is revealed and it is soon understood why Brutus eventually succumbs to Cassius’s offer: there is a logical method behind the physical and emotion madness. Marshall expertly shows Cassius’s intellect and she provides the theatrical catalyst to Brutus’s fuel of uncertainty.

Which leads to a much nuanced, very human portrayal by the talented Mark Peebler. As Marshall was a reminder of Gollum, Peebler has the regal features of Kevin McKidd from the HBO series ROME. A seasoned, chiseled warrior turned senator, Peebler's Brutus  embodies conflicted loyalty and guilt without any sign of weakness. He is nobody’s puppet, only a man who loves Rome so much that it drives him to commit the most heinous act. It is, without a doubt, the most sympathetic performance of the production. And his humanity is peeled back even more during his scenes with Portia (played by Susan Angelo, fresh from a wicked performance as a scheming countess in The Noise Within’s production of THE REHEARSAL). Brutus’s loyalty to Rome is matched by Portia’s loyalty to her husband, and Angelo---in just two scenes---depicts a woman of strength, tenderness, tenacity, and self-deprecating humor. She empathizes with Brutus’s mysterious torment (she is unknowing about the plot) to the core, resulting in what is probably the most touching moment in the entire play.

Cassius(Melora Marshall)tempts Casca(Alan Blumenfield)into joining the conspiracy

When  Carl Palmer’s Caesar appears in the very first scene, he is a picture of nobel authority. However, when he ignores the warnings and omens to appear at the senate where the murder is about to take place, Caesar becomes boisterous, arrogant, and obnoxious. This character direction taken by Palmer is a mistake because during the first act, we empathize with Brutus regarding his conflict in murdering his friend and a ruler well-loved by the populace. But when  Palmer displays such oafish behavior, the symbol of integrity is lost. Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted many ways, as seen by Melora Marshall’s Cassius. And Palmer initially grasped the emotional path of Caesar perfectly in the beginning as a political savvy Roman who rightfully gains the people’s love and respect, especially by Marc Anthony (played by Aaron Hendry, who displays a remarkable transformation from the carefree partier to the grief stricken, clever, and politically wise leader of the Triumvirate). But when he  made Caesar unlikable during the key moment in the play, the emotional punch of the betrayal becomes empty. Palmer is undoubtedly a superb actor, but the decision to add loud crudeness to the authority is inconsistent as to why Brutus would feel hesitancy and guilt for his actions.

However this flaw doesn’t take away from the overall production. Geer and her actors wonderfully create a world filled with treachery, violence, and guilt, showing how ambition can affect all, leaving no winners, villains, or heroes. All that remains are scarred human beings who barely survive the ordeal, trying to pick up the pieces in order to be whole once again.

Marc Antony (Aaron Hendry, top) grieves over Caesar (Carl Palmer,bottom)

Julius Caesar opened June 6 (Saturday night) and runs to September 26 (Saturday night)---Tickets: $10-$30---310-455-3723

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum

1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.

Topanga, CA 90290 (midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura [101] freeway)

online: http://www.theatricum.com/

Photos by: Ian Flanders





Published on Dec 31, 1969

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