Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Julius Caesar—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

“Absolute Power Corrupts…Absolutely!”

This drama by the Bard and directed by Shana Cooper is playing at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in repertory though October 29th.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 1-800-219-8161.

Power struggles have been going on from the beginning of time.  Some factions do it because they’re control-freaks; some want more territory; some, because they’re naturally bullies and like pushing people around, thereby, making themselves feel superior; and some, like Caesar (Armando Durán), are overly ambitious and desire to be adored by the Populous which, in this case, is partly the reason for his downfall.  Because, once you are thrust into power doesn’t mean that there aren’t others, just as eager as you, to pull you down, in order to gain that control for themselves.  Again, “Absolute Power…!  (You might recognize elements of these ancient times in our own current political arena.)

Also, in these classic clashes for authority, there is usually a cunning instigator/manipulator behind the scenes, like Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who are not popular or charismatic enough to lead, so they find a close friend or mate (e.g., Lady Macbeth/Macbeth), like Brutus (Danforth Comins), that have those qualities and, in which, they can ride to prominence themselves on their coattails.  Such is the dilemma we are faced with in this saga.

The story is familiar enough.  Julius Caesar, a despot who has recently gained power in Rome, rules his people with an iron fist.  A small band of citizens, led by Cassius and Brutus, decide that Caesar must die.  As mentioned, they have political ambitions of their own and Brutus’s wife, Portia (Kate Hurster), is especially mean-spirited, egging her husband toward assassinating him.  Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia (Amy Kim Waschke), even warns him to stay home from the Senate on the ides of March, as it’s predicted that will be a doomed day for him.  He doesn’t, and dies in a bloody onslaught from some Senators.

Into this fray appears Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour), who supported Caesar but has an uneasy alliance with the conspirators, as well.  In fact Antony may also have some political motivations of his own for his actions.  Complications arise when one discovers that Brutus and his pals do have some justifications for their concerns.  They sway the mobs, for a time, to support their cause.  But Antony is even more persuasive and manipulative after the dastardly deed is done, and easily wins backing to track down these “honorable men,” especially from Octavius Caesar (Benjamin Bonenfant), adopted son and heir to the Emperor, and bring them to justice.  Will the government under a new ruler be any better?  Probably not…but such is the Nature of Power, and the Powerful!

Even though this is a familiar, oft-done tale, I don’t want to give too much away, for it is up to you, dear audience, to make whatever connections need to be made.  I will say I have seen, and sometimes reviewed, over the years probably 15 productions of this story and I am pleased to say, this is the best production of it I have witnessed!  Yes, it is a classic tale of greed, ambition and corruption but that doesn’t guarantee that it will automatically be a winner.  And, yes, OSF’s productions and acting talents are always at their highest.  But the magic, uniqueness and success of this show rests firmly on the style in which it is presented.

The production is devoid mostly of the pageantry of elaborate sets, clever props and massive, period costumes that can hamper a production.  Instead it relies on simplicity of setting and clarity of the story to project its message, stripping it down to the basic elements of story-telling—the author’s words, the director/cast’s interpretation and the audience’s imagination to convey the tale, the purest form of entertainment.  Into this mix Cooper has added a stylized way of presenting it, akin to some Japanese and Aborigine forms of theatre.

Much of it is dance/movement-oriented, such as the battle scenes.  There is also the death of one character, in which he actually lays in his own blood, as the stomping of feet and his gyrations with it, conveys his death throes.  Very effective.  High praise must also go to the choreographer, Erika Chong Shuch, as she has followed Cooper’s vision and both have added greatly to the success of this event.  Much praise for all concerned, as a unique vision has been offered to convey the story and, even if you have only a rudimentary understanding of the Shakespearean language, the style in which it is presented reaches across language and cultural barriers, giving us a universal connectivity of understanding that seems to be slowing taken away in other arenas today.

One other thing, as to the clever rendering of this production, it is the first time I have felt some empathy for Brutus (Comins), who is often played as dastardly a villain as Cassius (Gardiner).  In this interpretation, he appears to be more of a victim to Cassius’s manipulations, as well as having some genuine, realistic reservations as to Caesar’s motives, who is certainly no saint.  In fact all the actors are following  Cooper’s vision and it works to the nth degree!

I highly recommend this production.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

“As I Remember”…‘Gus

I feel it might be time to recall some memories of Dr. Angus Bowmer, the founder of OSF, who I worked with as a student for two years in the mid-1960’s, as well as being a part of the acting troupe at OSF, when it was only the outdoor Festival during the summers:
  • I remember Dr. Bowmer telling his class of the time when a colleague of his, Dr. B. Iden Payne, from the University of Texas, when he directed here.  (He was the prototype for the Old Actor in, The Fantasticks, since the authors were students of his.)  He told an actor onstage that he needed more control of his character.  The student replied he didn’t know what he meant.  So Dr. Payne stood up on the back of the seats in the outdoor arena and walked on them to the apron of the stage, then said, “that’s what I mean by control!”

  • One time in class, Dr. Bowmer was trying to explain that often roles in the Bard’s plays are rarely performed by the age-group in which the characters are (e.g., Romero & Juliet, who should be early teens).  He said the mannerisms also would be different.  He gave the example of Prince Hamlet (who is actually a teenager) by doing his monologue, “oh, that this too, too solid flesh should melt…” in such a way, by scuffing and stamping his feet, such as a petulant teen might do when pouting, with a high, reedy voice.  He was middle-aged at this time but I felt that that interpretation could not be topped.

  • He loved playing the supporting roles, as he felt they were the fun parts, since the weight of the play did not fall on their shoulders.  His favorites being Peter Quince (…Dream), Shylock (Merchant…) and Adam (As You Like It), thus the name of his book, which outlined the early days of OSF, “As I Remember Adam.”
He was a man with a dream who never let go of that vision.  May that truly be said of us, all of us, that we hold our standards high and will never let the weight of the way the world is, be an excuse for the way it could be.  “And the beat goes on…!”

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