Saturday, November 1, 2014

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

This is a play in which I believe the characters, with all in their moral imperfections, should be thinking about the ultimate conquest, that is of becoming Caesar, Emperor, or King of Rome in whatever form it takes. If each character is not thinking along those lines then something is amiss. - Narrator

This presentation has been work shopped since the beginning of the year and features some exciting performers and some exquisite action on stage. It is a different kind of cast one you would not normally find doing Shakespeare.  

What the heck does this mean?

Well, if you think about it for one minute, it means that Josephina Lopez’s Casa 0101 Theatre company is giving Latino actors the opportunity to grow and stretch their creative beings by performing Shakespeare, which, if you think about it for another minute, have normally been roles reserved for white male actors with traces of an English accent, playing Italians.  Harumph! 

All right, I got that out of the way.

Not so fast, Cassius. 

Casting Latino actors does not happen in Los Angeles where Latino actors would not even be considered to fill the roles of Shakespearean characters. Casting directors forget that Shakespeare is performed all around the world with brown actors from Spain, South America, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. So why is it so odd in Los Angeles with a population of 4 million Latinos, about ½ of the total population, that so few Latinos are cast in any kind of medium in Los Angeles at all much less Shakespeare?

I’ll step down from my soapbox for now.

Casa 0101 Theatre presents Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare through November 16, 2014 directed by Robert Beltran with an all Latino cast in the beautiful renovated downtown Boyle Heights as part of enuentro 2014 A National Theatre Festival.

There are exceptional moments in Robert Beltran’s oeuvre of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  First, and most importantly, it is easy to follow and easy to understand.  Secondly there are some remarkable performances in this production, which I will get to later. There are also moments that need work, minor improvements, and I will direct my comments to that regard.

First of all life does not begin when an actor, in character, appears on stage for the first time.  That character has a life and the elements of that life accompanies the character.  That life is the backstory the actor brings with him, the history of the character, real or imaginary but creative.

The backstory to the events enfolding on stage is critical.  Without the backstory we lose sight of the actors history with Julius Caesar.  So while reciting the lines, projecting and what not, if we do not see in the presentation of the backstory, we lose historical measures. The actors must bring the history with them the moment before they step on stage and that history guides them in the aftermath with a creative truth.   

Caesar has just returned from Spain after ruthlessly vanquishing the enemies of Italy, which is at this point in time, an inner struggle of Romans against Romans. In Caesar’s eyes, and his eyes alone, he is the supreme ruler of Italy. This is important to know for other events to fall neatly into place.

The play opens on a Roman street celebrating the return of Julius Caesar.  The stage is darkened as the actors take their places with tribunes Flavius (Ray Rios), Marullus (Uvaldo Baltazar), center stage.  Tribunals are there to protect the interest of their citizens.  Following them are certain commoners as they enter in darkness and align themselves on each side of the audience.

(This director’s choice here may be slighted in scope and does not move the play along. If the purpose is to include the audience as citizens then more work needs to be done. Certainly having the players in the audience might help. )

The citizens have come to celebrate Caesar’s victory in Spain while Flavius and Marullus grouse there is no real victory as Italy’s generals are fighting Caesar, and paying a fair price for their treachery, their lives.  All await Caesar, the supreme charismatic leader, who marches into Rome as a military genius. But citizenry believed that Caesar had greater ambition and some do not believe in what he is doing, including Flavius and Marullus who give us a hint as to where events are taking us.

“Wherefore rejoice?  What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?” – Marullus

The idea of this celebration after the enemy was vanquished was to have the captured enemy paraded along the streets of Rome while the commoners celebrated with food and drink.

And while the commoners are there, there is no hint of a celebration, no vanquished enemies, because the Romans are fighting each other.  

But that doesn’t stop Caesar’s (Vance Valencia) celebration when he enters he has his wife Calpurnia (Christine Avila) and followers trailing him, most notably Antony (Lauren Ballesteros), Portia (Linda Lopez), Decius (Ray Rios), Cicero (Emmanuel Deleage), Brutus (Rachel Gonzalez), Cassius (Fidel Gomez) and Casca (Danny Mora).   

Caesar throws his weight around, on the feast of Lupercal (February 15th), and orders Antony to strike Calpurnia with the goat-hide thong to well –

“The barren, touched in this holy chase
Shake off their sterile curse.” – Caesar

This is an embarrassing statement for Caesar to make in front of his barren wife and from the party that accompanies him there is little reaction from those within earshot. Caesar is looking for an heir.  

(As a historical note Calpurina was Caesar’s third wife.  She married Caesar at 16 years of age and would have been 31 years old at this time, 44 BC)

Antony jumps at the opportunity to help Calpurina and if it means striking her with the goat-hide thong in the hopes of her bearing children so be it.   In fact, Antony would bleed for Caesar, but this is hardly noticeable in this moment and on this night.  

But, near them, and in the background the Soothsayer (Miguel Roura) yells something to Caesar.

“Thay say’st thou to me now?  speak
once again.” – Caesar

“Beware of the ides of March.” – Soothsayer

“He is a dreamer; let us leave him:  pass.” – Caesar

Caesar leaves and it is here Brutus and his brother-in-law Cassius, the soldier, convinces the pragmatic stoic Senator to join him to save Italy as they now know it.  Away from them, in the throngs of the Roman citizens, Brutus hears the cries from the populace wanting Caesar to take the wreath, or throne we later learn offered by Antony, and place it on his head. 

(But in actually the populace do not want him to be king and they fear Caesar will take ultimate power and destroy Rome’s way of life.)

Naytheless, Brutus is very curious.

“Another general shout!
I do believe that these applauses are
For some new honours that are heap’ed on Caesar.” – Brutus

Brutus blood boils and Cassius will not let up.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world.
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – Cassius

(The Romans at that time hated kings and being good republicans meant warring and destroying a way of life, kingdoms that did not sit well with the Romans.)

Caesar was in a predicament because he wanted to reform the government, which was, in effect, unworkable and the only way to do that, after his Spanish triumph, was to become a dictator for life, by decree. This would only be a temporary solution in route to a kingdom for which Caesar heirs would benefit.

Cassius was not having any part of that, and there was already something in the works, but they needed someone of Brutus’s reputation to implement the job.

Caesar enters to find Cassius and Brutus in a shadowy discussion.

“Youd Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much:  such men are dangerous.” – Caesar

Cassius has not completely convinced Brutus.  Brutus seeks more information from Casca about what went on from the crowd.  Casca, it would seem, is on the side of the Republicans, says that Caesar refused the crown three times from Antony and then fell with the sleeping sickness. Casca mocks Caesar’s dilemma with a virtuous complacency.  

To help implement the conspiracy Cassius asks Casca to dine with him. It is here that Cassius says that Brutus, well three parts of him, is on board.

“O, he sits high in all the people’s hearts;
And that which would appear offence in us,
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.” – Casca

In the ominous thundering night before the ides of March (March 15) Brutus is still not on board.  The skies burn and spew forth a notion of impending doom.

Casca meets with Cassius about the urgency of the assassination.

“Indeed, they say the senators tomorrow
Mean to establish Caesar as a king;
And he shall wear his crown by sea and land,
In every place save here in Italy. - Casca

Calpurnia, a pale ghostly figure, incessantly warns of her husband of darker days and in particular this day.

But Decius comes to take Caesar to the senate.  And Caesar says he will not go because of his Calpurnia’s dreams.  Caesar describes the dream but Decius says otherwise.

“This dream is all amiss interpreted;
It was a vision fair and fortunate; - Decius

Caesar falls for it and runs to the Capitol to be crowned king and that’s where events start to change.

A funny thing happened when watching the performances, all of the performers at one point suddenly turned into Robert Beltran, slightly miniature versions of the man himself, the movements on stage, the looks, the square jaw, the characters with the rapacious beaks.  That’s never happened to me before and possibly I recognize it as Beltran’s strong influence.   

Christine Avila provided a tremendous amount of life to Calpurnia, one in which she brings a great historical background to the character.  It is a wonderful characterization with a dramatic devotion to Caesar.

Lauren Ballesteros does some fine work as Antony.  But, the character needs an undying attentiveness to the will of Caesar, which was not apparent, as well as a life of a authoritative military figure. The pinnacle of Antony’s life is the “Friend, Romans, Countryman” speech, and Antony finally seals his doom with “This was the noblest Roman of all:” with Octavius looking on no less. Relaxing and work on breathing are the order of the day as Ballesteros is heard taking in air between each line of dialogue.  (Hopefully, it’s not that “thing” that going around.)  Ballesteros has some very fine moments.

Uvaldo Baltazar plays Marullus, Messala, Metellus and 4 Citizen. Marullus needs more of a purpose.  Marullus is a man who needs to convince to citizens that all is not right with Rome and when that fails he has his own way of protesting which we do not see.  

Emmanuel Deleage plays Cinna The Poet, Cicero, Artemidorous and Citizen and gives us some fine characterization in each of the characters.

Evan Garcia is satisfying as Titinius, Lucillius, Antony’s Servant, Publius, Cobbler and 3rd Citizen and overall creates some satisfying characters with his vocal strengths.  

Fidel Gomez is Cassius and is instrumental in convincing his brother in law Brutus to join the rebellion and to assassinate Caesar all for the good of the republic. Cassius words are used to persuade.  He is the germ of an idea, to right Rome, where things are wrong. His fatal flaw is giving Brutus his power and then trying to rule from the back of the chariot. Gomez conveys Cassius as a man, convincing with anger rather than persuasion, and for a purpose one is not sure. Cassius is instrumental in putting the pieces of the conspirator’s puzzle together leaving no stone unturned to get Caesar to the right place.

Rachel Gonzalez is Brutus and also does a fine job. Brutus is the instrument of others desires.  Brutus is the last holdout not recognizing this should be done, until Brutus is finally captured in their web of ruin.  In reality Brutus has gotten into matters way over his head.  And when he takes control he makes one bad decision after another rebuking Cassius every step of the way. But there is more to be had with the relationship between Brutus and Cassius, how they work and fight to provide a more perfect republic.  Brutus, in effect, is not smart and very stoic in the decision making process.  One would like to see Gonzalez offer a slightly different approach to liven the character, live the mistakes made, and move to a better position.  Also, nothing is made of Brutus’ cryptesthesia, that chthonia moment of the apparition of Julius Caesar, the prediction of Philippi, and then the reaction from that terrible moment.  Still there is a lot of good work here from which Gonzalez could add.

Jasmin Iraheta is Lucius, a servant to Brutus, and is fine in the role.

Karlo Ishibashi is Octavius, the sickly nephew to Julius Caesar, who comes to ultimately take the crown.  Ishibashi has an outstanding presence on stage.  In the end we know Octavius, the scrupulous one, seeks power. He plays his thoughts closely to his chest until the time is right.

Angel Lizarraga is Caesar’s Servant, Popillius, Octavius Servant, Messenger and Carpenter.

Linda Lopez is Portia and try as she might she is not getting anywhere with Brutus. Lopez does a nice job but there is more to the physical makeup to the character.  Portia makes light of being a woman but she knows there is something wrong with Brutus.  Finding the ways to get the information from him with a grander physical life would help the character.

Danny Mora is Casca and does a remarkable job.  There is a lot of humor in the role and Mora captures it in exciting fashion. Perhaps, in other roles, I have underestimated this actor.

Miguel Roura is excellent as the Soothsayer.  (Funny but I always think the Soothsayer is blind.  Not sure where I got that.) Roura also plays Ligarius and Volumnius.

Ray Rios does a fine job as Decius.  He is the man who job it is to convince Caesar to come to the Senate chambers despite Caesar’s and his Calpurnia’s objection and he does so in grand fashion.

Moises Rodriguez is 2nd Citizen, Cinna, The Conspirator, Poet and Strato.

Mario Valdez is Trebonius, Lepidus and Citizen, is dark a foreboding, and has his moments.  

Vance Valencia is Caesar, a fine Caesar at that, full of life, strength, and optimism, a baleful sneer for those surrounding him.  Caesar is always on guard, the eyes darting back and forth, searching for the treasonous soul who would wish him harm, excepting Antony. Valencia brings the historical history of Caesar to life.  He is a man who has killed many including the relatives of Brutus and Cassius. And he has killed many men to get to his position in life.  

Ted Lange IV will play Cassius November 7, 8, 14, 15, and 16th but did not perform the night I was there. 

Jeremian Ocanas is an understudy.

Robert Beltran, the director, offers us a wonderful look at the play.  This is a new and different kind of Julius Caesar, and it is slightly truncated but overall a very satisfying night of theatre. I attended the near opening night of the show and I suspect by the time  you run to see it, the play will have settled into a remarkable show.

The characters have little problems convincing others to join their ranks but when they are in the processing of convincing they are shouting as though beating a nail that will not go in. It is an unconquerable obstinacy unless there is recognition that someone’s mind has been changed during the process.     

Some moments could have worked to better effect, the assassination for one in which the blood spews forth from a motionless Caesar, but could have been produced on a standing writhing Caesar.  This journey of Julius Caesar would do better to riddle itself with obstacles and conflict in this moment.  (The poetic reality is that the dagger does not so easily enter when obstructed by bone.) (With a little help of some Velcro and dramatic movement from the actors the blood spewing forth begs for a heightened dramatic action.) There is only a movement to conclusion with only the slightest of deferential action - rather than the extreme dramatic expression of death Julius Caesar needs.

Josefina Lopez, Casa 0101 Founding Artistic Director, has done another wonderful job of bringing Julius Caesar to life here in Boyle Heights.

Abel Alvarado is the Costume Designer.

Christina Carrillo is the Stage Manager.

Sylvia Cortez is the Social Media Manager.

Mark Kraus is the Webmaster

Sohail e. Najafi is the Technical Director.

And, as always, Ed Krieger, does a wonderful job as the Production Photographer and who always manages to find a lot of life in the production stills.

Steve Moyer Public Relations is the Press Representative.

Cesar Retana-Holguin is the Set Designer.

Vincent Sanchez is the Sound Programmer.

Jorge Villanueva is the Light Board Operator.

Angel Perez is the Set Builder.

Run!  Run!  And take someone who likes to say Hail Caesar all of the time.

Reservations:  323-263-7684


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