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Hail Caesar! Free Play triumphs again

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

April 1, 2007

Last weekend, Shakespeares Julius Caesar, under the direction of Sam Zelitch 09, opened in Shiffman 219, making that classroom the third nontraditional theatrical space used by the Free Play Theatre Cooperative in just five productions. In The Hoots spring theater preview, Zelitch promised that this production would not be boring. The performance, condensed into just forty-five minutes and performed by a cast of three women, certainly lives up to that promise.

The play begins with a plot synopsis included in the program being played on an audio cassette, spoken by a distinguished-sounding British voice, before Zohar Fuller 09 and Amanda Brown 08 start delivering the opening lines, pacing about the room, yelling them at the audience as they are nearly drowned out by loud music. This very much sets the tone for the production;

chaos swallows everything it can.

That is not at all a complaint;

rather, that is entirely true to the text and feeds the power of the production. The fall of Caesar precipitates a civil war between factions led by Marc Antony and Brutus, the conclusion of which ends the play, and those familiar with Roman history or Shakespeares Antony and Cleopatra will know history doesnt stabilize there, as the subsequent shared rule of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus degenerates into further maneuvering for power. Shakespeares text is most aware of this disorder, particularly with the ominous storm early on, foretelling the chaos to unfold.

Zelitchs staging latches onto the disorder that looms over Rome and truly brings it to life. The actresses are almost constantly in motion, giving their performances the texture of restless animals before a storm. Famous speeches, including Brutus and Antonys addresses to the Roman people following Caesars death, are partially obscured by other noise and yelling. Flashlight beams wave from the side into the audiences eyes while action takes place in the usual playing area during the storm. The viewer should expect to be overwhelmed at times by everything that happens at once, but that sense of being overwhelmed is precisely what makes the production powerful and beautiful;

the viewer shares in the tragedy of men swallowed by the chaos they helped unleash.

Perhaps the most notable spin this production brought to Shakespeares play is the actual portrayal of Caesar. Instead of one of the actresses handling the role, his lines come in the recorded voice of a British actor, played as different actresses at different times holding a white mask up to her face. This sets up several sharp contrasts between Caesar and all other characters;

he is more machine and less human, more controlled and less in-tune with the tense atmosphere hanging over Rome, ancient and out of place amidst the rest of the world of the play. However, he also represents the only thing standing between the current Rome and the impending chaos. His death at the hands of the Roman Senate, fittingly, provides the chaotic highlight of the production. This way of portraying Caesar also sets the stage for a very cool way of presenting his apparition to Brutus before the climactic battle at Philippi.

In condensing the play into forty-five minutes, Zelitchs staging hinges on the energy of his actresses;

Fuller, Brown, and Allison Vanouse 09 leave little to be desired on this front. Vanouse, handling the role of Brutus in addition to a couple smaller roles, brings a cool command to most parts of the show, befitting the charismatic senator at the center of Cassius (Fuller)s scheme for rebellion, while also bringing tremendous intensity, especially during her monologues deciding about siding with the conspirators and, later, killing herself. Fuller handles strong characters well, and she plays quite a few in this production, particularly Cassius. Her most memorable success, however, comes playing the entire crowd to which Brutus and Antony address their speeches about Caesars death;

throughout the scene, Fullers job is to loudly support everything being said, presenting the public as enthusiastic sheep to whoever has its ear, and it is one of the more memorable sequences in the production. Brown has the rangiest task of the three actresses, responsible for more than half of the roles on the cast list, and also enjoys admirable success, from the sweetness of Brutuss virtuous wife Portia to the foolishness of the bumbling senator Casca to the earnest, serious Antony. The three combine to play over twenty roles, with little time to rest during the show, and succeed wonderfully.

The design aspects were surprisingly strong, given the unusual theater space. Full florescent lighting, localized lamps, and total darkness all served worthwhile functions in the production. No set piece was wasted, and the peculiarities of the room, such as the chalkboard and the projector, found ways to be useful to the production rather than inconveniences of the space. Costumes could not be too elaborate due to little time for changing, but generally served well for distinguishing which character an actress was playing at a given time. The music and sound work was a tremendous asset, frequently augmenting the chaos of the situation onstage.

The Free Play Theatre Cooperatives Julius Caesar will continue its run Thursday, March 29 and Friday, March 30 at 8:00 p.m. in Shiffman 219. This inventive staging is well worth seeing and admission is free, so anyone interested in checking out a whirlwind of a Shakespearean play should give strong consideration to seeing this production.

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