(Garden Grove, CA) July, 2011 – There is a fine line that separates a deed that is considered honorable and an action that is driven by ambition. What is the difference between one who makes selfless sacrifices for the needs of the whole and a person whose accomplishments are fueled only by obsessive desires? These are the questions posed at the Shakespeare Orange County’s production of JULIUS CAESAR, and these questions are answered in good old fashioned bloody style. With Director Carl Reggiardo at the helm, and veteran actors David Denman and John Walcutt as the leads, S.O.C. 20th Anniversary opener mixes political action with keen philosophical insight on ambition and honor.
Rome is celebrating the last military victory of Julius Caesar (Director Reggiardo, whose regal, classy portrayal mixes the charismatic charm of a leader with a sliver dose of pride that, sadly, leads to his death). On three separate occasions, the people--led by his ally Marc Anthony (Michael Eric Strickland)---offer Caesar the mantle as their leader. And all three times, out of honor and humility, Caesar refuses, much to the growing apprehension of Senator Caius Cassius (John Walcutt). He and other fellow senators fear that this refusal is but a mere ploy to reign over Rome with an iron fist, the beginnings of a vicious dictatorship. Cassius shares his concerns with his colleague Marcus Brutus (David Denman), who is also best friends with Caesar. And it is through Cassius’s machinations, as well as Brutus internal conflict, that results in bloodshed, not only for their leader and savior, but also for many in Rome.
As always, Reggiardo’s direction is tight and fast paced, always keeping the action in a state of fluidity, without losing any of the key dramatic moments. But this is an actor-driven play and once again, as he did with S.O.C. Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew, Denman ignites the stage with a virtuoso’s performance as Brutus. In those previous appearances, Denman radiated charismatic leadership in Henry V and boisterous, buffoonish charm in Shrew. But in Caesar, Denman infuses his Brutus with sympathetic integrity and an ever-growing tormented indecisiveness that makes Hamlet’s dilemma seem pale by comparison. Brutus instinctively knows that Caesar has the potential of becoming a dictator, but to what extreme? That is the question. Denman delves into his character’s conflict, patiently revealing each layer like an onion. And his eloquence for The Bard’s poetics is unmatched; his delivery is effortless and his projection is clear where even during the times he is soft-spoken, he can still be heard in the back rows.
Walcutt’s co-conspirator Cassius is an interesting exploration of a character who oftentimes has been portrayed as a sly, soft-spoken manipulator, the same qualities possessed by The Bard’s two other memorable villains: Iago and Edmund. But Walcutt’s interpretation as an explosive, bellicose, power-hungry senator is, at first, jarring. But as the play progresses, it is absolutely illuminating. And the key scene that illustrates Walcutt’s Cassius is when he meets with fellow conspirator Casca (a gloriously reptilian Greg Ungar) during a thunderstorm. In that scene, Walcutt savors and revels in the rain, thunder and lightning, as though all three unbridled elements fuel his vitality and bloodlust. And when he plunges the first dagger into Caesar, Walcutt’s Cassius comes into full bloom, not merely as an ambitious senator seeking power, but as an ex-soldier filled with an infinite hunger to satisfy his lust for battle to kill ANYONE in his way. This warlike nature is reflected in Walcutt’s loud speech (which is suitable here) and his tightened, coiled body language that combines the lethal swiftness of a cobra and the furious intensity of a bulldog. Walcutt’s brilliant exploration of this character is a perfect contrast to Denman’s composed and civilized Brutus.
Unfortunately, the play isn’t without faults, mainly due to the performances of Strickland’s Marc Anthony and Amanda Zarr as Portia. Strickland is a talented actor, but his short, stocky build doesn’t fit the mold of Marc Anthony, who is supposed to be 1/3 charismatic leader of the rebellion against Brutus, 1/3 persuasive speaker that leads to that rebellion, and 1/3 partier and lady killer. Strickland’s presence fits better for one of the co-conspirators, especially Casca. Or perhaps Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (a strong Shaun Anthony, who also plays the Soothsayer with chilling effectiveness when he announces “Beware the ides of March!”). What makes Strickland’s performance even more frustrating is his delivery, most notably during his “Friends, Romans, and countrymen” speech to the populace of Rome. Brutus has just given a frighteningly effective speech on why Caesar had to die (courtesy of Denman’s vibrant performance). But Strickland misses an INCREDIBLE number of opportunities to add subtext to Anthony’s speech, especially when he refers to Brutus and the others as “honorable men.” Strickland’s delivery is surprisingly one-note and unconvincing. If an alternative had to be mentioned, Ryan Shively---who portrayed Edmund in last year’s King Lear---comes to mind as someone with a leading man’s good looks and demonstrating the power, charisma, and subtleties of Anthony’s dialogue (especially the key speech that leads to Brutus’s downfall). Also disappointing was Zarr’s portrayal of Brutus’s wife, Portia. Although physically she is a good match for Denman, and her eloquence of the text is superior, her tone is that of a loud, angry wife who should be more frustrated with her husband’s secret alliance with his co-conspirators than filled with rage. Portia represents an extension of her husband’s conscience, layered with devotion and sensitivity to Brutus’s silent pain. But Zarr’s acting choice to be needlessly quick-tempered at the lack of power she has is devoid of sympathy her character needs, especially during a key conversation between Brutus and Cassius at the second act of the play.
Regardless, Shakespeare Orange County’s 20th Anniversary opener is an exciting political action yarn about loyalty, honor, treachery, and intrigue. The strengths, by far, outweigh the weaknesses. This is characteristic for all of their productions. And we can only hope that the next twenty years for the acting troupe will be just as stimulating, thought-provoking, and profitable.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar opened July 7 and runs to July 23.
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by: Johnny Ng