Press - Julius Caesar

Review: Julius Caesar at The Rude Mechanicals

by Amanda N. Gunther, TheatreBloom

TheatreBloom rating: 4.5/5 stars

Friends! Romans! Washingtonians! The time has come to take a stand against the inconstant shifting nature of theatre in Washington DC! Hail The Rude Mechanicals and their rebellious production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Directed by company founder Jaki Demarest, this scandalous production takes the great Roman Empire to 1920’s soviet occupied Russia. Stalin, proletariat, rebellion; all encompassed in Demarest’s revolutionary vision of one of the Bard’s milder tragedies.

Cassius and Brutus (Rebecca Speas and Joshua Engel, left) face off against Octavius (Holly Trout, right) Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Cassius and Brutus (Rebecca Speas and Joshua Engel, left) face off against Octavius (Holly Trout, right)

With honor in one eye and death in the other, Demarest approaches the Bard’s work as a vessel for a political agenda that has run rampant throughout history: power to the people because the people have the power. While the execution of this concept weighs in at a 75% completion factor, the notion that the citizens guide the story arch of the play with their active presence amid the audience is a unique concept inviting the audience to feel as if they are a part of the rebellion. To hear the cries of the citizen right beside your ear as the perpetual struggle for power plays out before your eyes is an immersive technique that fully douses the audience in the idea of revolution.

Demarest layers in the concepts of feminist struggle as well; giving voice and light to the oppression of women by cross-casting all of the major conspirator roles with female actors. Making both Cassius and Mark Antony female characters augments Shakespeare’s undertones of romantic tension between Antony and Caesar as well as the more blatant sexual tension between Cassius and Brutus. Demarest’s ability to adapt a gargantuan Shakespearean tragedy to an intimate space is astounding; her opening scene alone with the V-line of conspirators with Brutus at the point making for a striking first image of the show.

(l to r) Cassius (Rebecca Speas), Brutus (Joshua Engel), Cinna (Sam David), Mark Antony (Jaki Demarest), Casca (Lisa Hill-Corley), Trebonius (Melissa Schick) and Caesar (bottom right corner, Alan Duda) Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
(l to r) Cassius (Rebecca Speas), Brutus (Joshua Engel), Cinna (Sam David), Mark Antony (Jaki Demarest), Casca (Lisa Hill-Corley), Trebonius (Melissa Schick) and Caesar (bottom right corner, Alan Duda)

Rounding out the displacement of Ancient Rome into the stoic 1920’s of Russia, Costume Designer Trevor Jones finds outfits most befitting of every gender, class, and rank throughout the performance. Painting Caesar to look like Stalin and his men to wear the red sashes of his regime is a mark of a learned history buff. Jones keeps the style trendy with the cuts of the dresses and coats featured on the women; a classy and sophisticated hand at work when it comes to featuring characters like Cinna of the conspirators or Portia, Brutus’ wife.

Demarest pares down the production from its lengthy original version to something much more succinct. The essence of Caesar might be an appropriate name for the performance, though all of the key points are featured without feeling as if a great deal has been struck from the show’s existence. The production stands on sturdy legs on the whole; exceptional pacing and well-delivered text from the principles.

Casca (L- Lisa Hill-Corley) and Cinna (R- Sam David)Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Casca (L- Lisa Hill-Corley) and Cinna (R- Sam David)

Metellus (Moira Parham) Cinna (Sam David) Casca (Lisa Hill-Corley) and Trebonius (Melissa Schick) make up the core of the conspirators; each delivering their part in Caesar’s downfall under Brutus’ reign. Whether it’s David’s surly and haughty mockery of the citizens in the opening scene or Hill-Corley’s brutish facial expressions pulled during combat scenes, these four femme fatales become a crucial part of the performance, often just standing stoically still in silence in the company of Brutus. The image that they create as a harem of followers is striking and feeds into the sexual opposition created in Demarest’s vision.

(L to R) Calpurnia (Mikki Barry) Caesar (Alan Duda) Portia (Boneza Hanchock) and Brutus (Joshua Engel)Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
(L to R) Calpurnia (Mikki Barry) Caesar (Alan Duda) Portia (Boneza Hanchock) and Brutus (Joshua Engel)

Women for the sake of women, however, are soft and delicate creatures as exhibited in Calpurnia (Mikki Barry) and Portia (Boneza Hanchock.) Mild and meager both Barry and Hanchock adapt the stereotypical demure position of femininity and wend it around Shakespeare’s words when it comes to their husbands. Barry in particularly infuses her performance with hints of a woman’s fury over her outlandish dreams, though never quite so sternly as to evoke the ire of her husband, Caesar (Alan Duda.) To his credit, Duda delivers a forlorn version of Caesar; human and flawed. There is a vulnerability to his portrayal of the title character that is endearing, yet quickly revoked and pinned down by his masculine sensibilities when he puts Calpurnia into her place with a single glance and uttered phrase.

Mark Antony (L- Jaki Demarest) grieves the death of Caesar (R- Alan Duda)Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Mark Antony (L- Jaki Demarest) grieves the death of Caesar (R- Alan Duda)

Playing opposite Caesar, though they share precious little stage time together, Demarest takes on the multi-faceted role of Mark Antony. Serving as a bombastic burst of energy to the stage, Demarest finds depth and dimension in this supporting role. A tumultuous amalgamation of spirited sentiment, she churns up a plethora of contradictory emotions, warring with one another throughout her speeches. Fury and love tangle with passionate grievance; several show-stealing moments landing her way when she rallies the crowd to the side of righteousness after the slaughter of Caesar. Jarring in a similar fashion with even fewer moments to the stage is young Octavius (Holly Trout.) Though appearing briefly near the end of the production, her spitfire delivery makes her performance worth noting.

Brutus (L- Joshua Engel) and Cassius (R- Rebecca Speas) Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Brutus (L- Joshua Engel) and Cassius (R- Rebecca Speas)

Brutus (Joshua Engel) is often credited with the overthrowing of Caesar; the figurehead to revolution. Yet it’s Cassius (Rebecca Speas) that wields the true blade of villainy in this performance. Engel delivers an underwhelming Brutus; taking a milder and more aloof approach to the character. Emotionally disconnected, Engel serves the role as a puppet; allowing Demarest’s feminist vision of ‘women in power’ to ring true with Speas as the master puppeteer. Engel does rally moments of emotional fury, though the majority of speeches are soft spoken; it’s the romantic tension that he carries between his character and Speas’ that is worth watching.

Rebecca Speas as Cassius in The Rude Mechanicals production of Julius CaesarAmanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Rebecca Speas as Cassius in The Rude Mechanicals production of Julius Caesar

Speas, as the ruthless and remorseless Cassius, drives the action of the production. A fierce energy with perpetual resting rage-face, Speas is a raging inferno of fury that blasts forth in every scene. Speas’ consistently high-levels of playing each moment at full emotional intensity leaves her little room in which to allow these heavily emotionally articulated moments to grow and in a few scenes she reaches an emotionally peaked ceiling a bit too early. That aside, her stage presence is tremendous and she is the voice and reason of the uprising, masterfully commanding Brutus to her will.

Ye Gods, it shall amaze you, the feats this company manages to accomplish in under two hours traffic upon the stage; a reimagination of tragedy that gives new meaning to power struggles throughout history.

‘Julius Caesar’ at The Rude Mechanicals

by Sophia Howes, DC Metro Theater Arts

Julius Caesar seems to be always with us. High school Latin still features Caesar’s Commentaries. Once there was a Russian Tsar. Now there is an Ebola czar. Caesar appears on Pinterest, Tumblr, and multitudes of Internet memes. Some e-cards notes “Just a heads-up that I have no intention of stabbing you 23 times on the Ides of March.” A distraught young woman pleads “We should totally just stab Caesar!” Perhaps it is time to admit that he is inevitable, like death, taxes, and Santa Claus.

Julius Caesar seems to be always with us. High school Latin still features Caesar’s Commentaries. Once there was a Russian Tsar. Now there is an Ebola czar. Caesar appears on Pinterest, Tumblr, and multitudes of Internet memes. Some e-cards notes “Just a heads-up that I have no intention of stabbing you 23 times on the …

And the Non-Rage Faces of Mikki Barry (Calpurnia), Alan Duda (Caesar), Boneza Hanchock (Portia), and Joshua Engel (Brutus!). Photo courtesy of The Rude Mechanicals.

And the Non-Rage Faces of Mikki Barry (Calpurnia), Alan Duda (Caesar), Boneza Hanchock (Portia), and Joshua Engel (Brutus!). Photo by Trevor Jones and Leanne O’Neill

The Rude Mechanicals have a unique take on Caesar; he is just like (wait for it) Lenin! In this iteration, Brutus becomes Trotsky and Octavius, a young Stalin. This production is an alternate history, set in 20th century Rome with echoes of the Soviet Union after the revolution. There are female soldiers; Cassius (Rebecca Speas), Mark Antony (Jaki Demarest, who also directs), and Casca (Lisa Hill-Corley). The crowd, i.e. the Roman populace, sits in the front seats and yells its head off for Caesar or Brutus, depending on who’s agitating and why. Caesar (Alan Duda) comes across as a somewhat courtly mob boss, surrounded by adoring women. Octavius (Holly Trout) is a combination of cold killer and femme fatale. Brutus (Joshua Engel) is just another thoughtful intellectual, wondering what it all means and oh, by the way, plotting to kill Caesar.

The key to this production is the performances, and the commitment of the actors is exceptional. Alan Duda is a startlingly effective Caesar, and his evil scream as his ghost appears to Brutus is one of the most riveting moments of the evening. As Brutus, Joshua Engel renders a fine account of a man who is torn between his idealism and his baser impulses. Rebecca Speas’ Cassius is full of conviction and fire; there is no doubt that this Cassius will win over Brutus to his (or, in this case, her) side. Jaki Demarest is a formidable Mark Antony, and her speech after Caesar’s death (“And Brutus is an honorable man”) is both a moving portrait of a woman mourning her friend, and a rousing call to action for the citizens of Rome. Lisa Hill-Corley is excellent as Casca; her matter-of-fact urgency and singularity of purpose make her an ideal co-conspirator for the fierce Cassius. As Octavius, Holly Trout is appropriately devious and menacing, suggesting that, like Stalin’s, her reign of terror will be profound and excruciating.

It is heartening to see so many women playing Shakespeare, when traditionally there are so few women’s parts. Here, Boneza Hanchock is a lovely Portia, and her speech about her fear for her husband is sensitively and beautifully drawn. As Calpurnia, Mikki Barry portrays a devoted wife, full of foreboding with a tender grace; her sadness as she stands by Caesar’s corpse in a wheelchair is especially touching. Moira Parham (Metellus Cimber), Melissa Schick (Trebonius) and Sam David (Cinna the Conspirator) give purposeful and focused performances.

Will Robey hits just the right note as Cinna the Poet, and his death is one of the most chilling scenes in the production. Sidney Davis (First Citizen), Andy Bakry (Second Citizen), Julia Pfanstiehl (Third Citizen), Leanne O’Neill (Fourth Citizen), Carol Calhoun (Fifth Citizen) and Michael McCarthy (Sixth Citizen) all contribute to the energy and brio of the production.

One of the best aspects of the staging is the use of the crowd. They chant “Caesar! Caesar! Caesar!” They react viscerally to whatever they see on stage, and are swayed 180 degrees by the dueling orations of Brutus and Antony.

 Alan Duda (Julius Caesar). Photo by Photo by Trevor Jones and Leanne OíNeill.

Alan Duda (Julius Caesar). Photo by Trevor Jones and Leanne OíNeill.

A few caveats; to have Brutus be the one who tricks Caesar into going to the Forum doesn’t seem to work; such obvious tactics take away from our image of Brutus as the one conspirator with principles. In addition, this Brutus seems to have already decided to kill Caesar at the very beginning; the manipulation of Brutus’ vanity, and his journey to the final decision to kill, are part of why we want to watch Brutus. Because, for example, Brutus’ speech about assassination (“Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.”) comes in the very first scene, his through-line as a character becomes somewhat confusing.

Still, Director Jaki Demarest has created a unique, thought-provoking version of one of Shakespeare’s best plays. If at times it veers towards the outlandish, the production is always surprising and dynamic. The danger inherent in revolution, and the torturous intimacy of the relationships, are palpable, and, along with the power and beauty of the language, remind us what a great play this truly is.

Sound Design (Eric Honour) is among the evening’s greatest pleasures. As we enter, we hear scratchy revolution-type songs, and towards the end as the vision grows more somber, deeper, more mourning notes intrude. Lighting Design/Greenbelt Arts Center, by Eric Gasior and Liana Olear, has some unusual and striking effects, such as the flickering of lights in the beginning, and the darkness as Brutus encounters the ghost of Caesar.

Costumes by Trevor Jones have variety and style, and visually add to the Bolshevik revolution theme. Rebecca Speas creates many unusual Special Effects.

Brutus’ desire to kill Caesar is really a contemplation of patricide; there were rumors in Caesar’s lifetime that Brutus was actually Caesar’s son. Such themes are primal, and they never fail to grab an audience. This cast commits thoroughly to the play, and rides it valiantly to the finish. If you are looking for edgy Shakespeare, relax and enjoy the ride.

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Julius Caesar plays through Sunday, January 11, 2015 at the Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway – in Greenbelt, Maryland. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (301) 441-8870 or purchasing them online.

Julius Caesar also plays January 16-24, 2015 at the Howard County Center for the Arts—8510 High Ridge Road – in Ellicott City, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.


Rude Mechanicals set Shakespeare’s play in Bolshevik Russia

Story follows betrayal, deceit

by Kristy Groff, Gazette.Net

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend the Rude Mechanicals your ears during their upcoming run of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Greenbelt Arts Center.

This will be the second time the Rude Mechanicals have taken on the play since their debut 15 years ago. This time, director Jaki Demarest has turned to Russia’s political climate nearly a century ago, taking inspiration from the figures of Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and their respective roles in the Russian revolution and fitting them to ancient Rome.

“I’ve never seen or heard of a production of ‘Caesar’ in this particular time period or concept,” said Rebecca Speas, who plays Cassius, a conspirator close to Brutus, “so I think it’s added an interesting dynamic, finding the parallels between the actual historical happening of Julius Caesar being assassinated in ancient Rome versus the more modern political situation of the Russian revolution that Jaki has chosen to go with.”

“The cast seems to be enjoying the Bolshevik Revolutionary setting,” added Demarest, “and our regular audience members seem to be intrigued by its possibilities.”

Though named for the former ruler of the Roman Republic, the play focuses more on the series of events leading up to Caesar’s assassination by Brutus, his good friend concerned for the state of the republic under Caesar’s rule. In particular, Cassius’ influence on Brutus plays a large part in the eventual decision to assassinate Caesar.

“What I’m really enjoying is watching the interplay between Brutus and Cassius,” said Joshua Engel, who plays Brutus. “Brutus is the tortured intellectual, a character that suits me well, I do it all the time. Cassius is really hot-headed and a go-getter, tremendously enthusiastic.”

From the start of the play, Cassius is working to bring all of the co-conspirators together, then steps into the background once the assassination plot is underway. While it could look to be a personal attack on Caesar, everyone in the play acts according to what they feel is the best decision for the republic as a whole, friendships aside.

“Everyone in the play has the best interest of Rome at heart – that may be different from person to person, but it’s true,” said Speas. “They don’t have the same end goal, and they want what’s best for themselves as well, but in a lot of these scenes that takes a back seat to everything, which is exciting to watch.”

Though the relationship is fraught enough in the original setting of the play, there is a sense of underlying romantic tension that comes through between the two in this Rude Mechanicals production, thanks to casting regardless of gender. This helps bring the pairing of Brutus and Cassius and their roles in Caesar’s assassination to the forefront, with Caesar himself seeming as an afterthought in the play.

“Julius Caesar is, in many ways, an interloper in the play that bears his name,” Demarest said. “He has no monologues; we have so little sense of the workings of his mind that the necessity of his assassination remains an open question, some 400 years after the writing of this play.”

While this is Speas’ second production with the Rude Mechanicals, Engel is one of the original founders and even appeared in the troupe’s initial take on “Julius Caesar.” For each of them, however, their work on this particular production has shed new light on the play written centuries ago and set further back, still.

“I didn’t understand it in high school and I didn’t understand it the last time – I think I was training for a race – so this is the first time I’ve had a chance to feel like I’m really close to the play,” said Engel.

“I was really struck by how much heart is in it,” added Speas. “One reason why they teach it in school is there really isn’t any of the dirty jokes or the romance, or the sort of swashbuckling adventure you get in other Shakespeare plays. Subsequently it’s gotten the rep for being dry and dusty and boring, dealing with a bunch of old men talking at each other for two hours.”

Whether examined through the lens of the Bolshevik Revolution, Shakespearean England or the fall of the Roman Republic, “Julius Caesar” has maintained relevancy centuries after its creation, an aspect of Shakespeare’s works the Rude Mechanicals hope to impress upon the public with every production.

“In the end this isn’t really about ancient Rome,” said Engel. “Every story, regardless of when you set it, it’s always about today.”

Call It Rude Homage for Shakespeare

by Jim Link, Gazette.Net

The myriad-minded Shakespeare is so capacious that he thrives even on narrow, “hip” or politically trendy interpretations.

There was nothing petty or provincial, though, in The Rude Mechanicals’ production of Julius Caesar; their joyous irreverence and bizarre innovations served only to deepen our appreciation of Shakespeare. The Rudes come to praise the Bard, not to bury him, to coin a phrase.

Those unfortunates who missed last weekend’s production at the Greenbelt Arts Center can still catch it at the Howard County Center for the Arts beginning on January 16. Google The Rude Mechanicals for details.

Set in 1924 Russia, Caesar-as-Lenin (Alan Duda) is opposed by Brutus-as-Trotsky (Josh Engel). The integrity and optimism of the Bolshevik Revolution fail horrifically with the emergence of the young Octavius Caesar-as-Stalin (Holly Trout).

Toss in some dizzying genderbenders and you have an evening of mind-stretching, sexually revelatory, politically insightful entertainment. Cassius, Antony and Octavius Caesar all are female characters!

This casting is partly inspired, partly sheer desperation. Holly Trout explained to me that there was a merry-go-round of casting changes right up to the week before opening night as actors kept dropping out. “There were three Caesars, two Antonys, two Octavius Caesars and two Treboniuses,” she said.

Other Actors

Duda was a real trouper coming off the bench as Caesar #3 and Director Jaki Demarest heroically did double duty as a mini-skirted Antony #2, while Holly Trout stepped in as a sleek, menacing, feline Octavius Caesar #2. The play’s the thing indeed!

No wonder Demarest credits assistant director Liana Olear for pulling the show together and for letting her “keep whatever sanity I have left when this is over.”

If Josh Engel (Brutus) is the noblest Roman of them all, Rebecca Speas (Cassius) is certainly the prettiest assassin of them all. After they argue in their tent the day before the battle of Phillipi, they make up by rough housing playfully, ratcheting up the sexual tension between them. So when they eventually “bid farewell, forever and forever” with a deep, lingering kiss, it seems weirdly appropriate.

Also appropriate, though a jolt, is Brutus’s tender kiss of Portia’s self-inflicted thigh wound. The lovely Boneza Hanchock (Portia) is proving her stoic courage to her uncommunicative husband. Uxorious response!

Engel and Demarest deliver their funeral orations with dignity, reason and noble futility (Brutus), and with passion, irony and cynical effectiveness (Antony).

The fickle mob plunges into the rapture of violence, tearing Cinna the Poet to pieces – poor Will Robey.

The ragged edges of this challenging production will be smoothed out next week, no doubt. It’s a hoot, a delight, an education.