PHOTO BY IAN FLANDERS The Soothsayer (Gerald Rivers) warns Caesar (Mark Lewis), â€śBeware the Ides of March.â€ť
Topangaâ€™s Theatricum Botanicum triumphantly returns with a chilling production of the Bardâ€™s timeless tragedy of blood, murder, death, war, and revenge.
Beneath the ancient oaks of the Theatricum Botanicum there is a tale told of men who disagree with the political ambitions of their leader.
Rome, 44 B.C. or the United States, 2021? Who knowsâ€”for the politics are the same.
â€śAs we face the changing world of 2021, we find by observing the mistakes of history, and feel the ever-changing forces that tore down the Republic of Rome,â€ť writes the Artistic Director, Ellen Geer, in the program. â€śWe can become better stewards and caretakers of our world today.â€ť
As a full house found its way to their seats in the beautifully renovated amphitheater, we were introduced to the Roman world of the play through the splendid oratory of the â€śNarrator,â€ť Gerald Rivers, who warns us against the rise of tyranny and the dangers of a politically divided Republic.
What exactly is a Republic and why does it matter?
â€śDemocracyâ€”A republic, with equal liberty and justice for all. How to find it, tend it, gently evolve it,â€ť asks the program notes. â€śHow to keep it for the people,â€ť and away from the rule of one? By disallowing inequality, dictatorship, skewed ambition within politics to flourish. These very things can steal the magnificence of democracy from a world, a nation, a people.â€ť
According to historians, Julius Caesar was a general, statesman, lawgiver, an orator, historian and a mathematician. His government (with modifications) endured for centuries; he never lost a war, fixed the calendar, and created the first newssheet, Acta Diurna, which was posted on the Forum to let everyone know what the Assembly and Senate were doing.
Yet fear, envy and jealousy brought about Caesarâ€™s demise as his generals conspired against him.
As Shakespeareâ€™s haunting play opens, Tribunes find Roman citizens neglecting their work in order to watch Caesarâ€™s triumphal parade during the Feast of Lupercal. The Tribunes reprimand them and disperse the crowd.
Then, Caesar (Mark Lewis*) enters with his entourage, including his loyal general Marc Antony (well played by Michael McFall*, who later gives a brilliant and affecting funeral speech).
The parade is interrupted by an ominous Soothsayer (Gerald Rivers*) who warns him to â€śBeware the Ides of March,â€ť but Caesar ignores him and proceeds with his victory celebration.
Lewis plays Caesar as a powerful yet sardonic modern-day CEO who can smile at you while stabbing you in the back.
Members of Caesarâ€™s entourage include Senators Decimus Brutus (a confident yet humble Christopher W. Jones*) who is a steady counterpart to the headstrong â€ślean and hungryâ€ť Gaius Cassius (portrayed by the magnificent Melora Marshall*).
During the ceremony, after three times refusing the crown of Emperor from Marc Antony, Caesar re-enters as if he were a demigod. After Caesar exits, Brutus and Cassius step aside and summon their loyal comrade Casca (a soulful Franc Ross*) to recount the events leading to Caesarâ€™s refusal of the crown of Emperor. Cascaâ€™s story drives Brutus and Cassius to madness, as Caesarâ€™s tyrannical rule has polarized the city and his generals are at odds.
Indeed, the play comes alive when an enraged Cassius declares there is much discord in Rome. Marshall endows Cassius with such red-hot passion that she nearly eclipses the cast and, as always, makes a strong case for women taking leading roles in the Bardâ€™s plays.
The Ides of March
During a violent storm on the night before March 15, the Ides of March, Brutus cannot sleep. His loving and loyal wife, Portia (poignantly played by Willow Geer*) entreats him to reveal what is troubling him so. He cannot do so and instead, meets in secret with the conspirators.
Later that morning, Caesarâ€™s wife, Calpurnia (a loving, sympathetic Cindy Kania-Guastaferro*) warns him of the dangers of going into the Senate. Fearing that he might stay home, one of the conspirators arrives to escort him and convinces Caesar that Calpurnia has misinterpreted her dreams and the recent omens.
Caesar departs for the Senate where, after some phony petitions to distract him, he is stabbed by the conspirators, including Brutus and Cassius.
As co-Director with Willow Geer, Ellen Geerâ€™s hand is seen in the dramatic tension sustained throughout the play to the final, brutal scenes; itâ€™s not often that you can see this level of action and sword fighting onstage and up close.
This is the joy of seeing Shakespeare live; to witness how the actors handle such a story in such heroic fashion while speaking some of the most iconic language in theater.
The strong cast includes standouts Max Lawrence* as Marcellus; Eric Flores* as Octavius, and Matthew Domenico as Martellus Cimber.
Rounding out the ensemble are Gabrielle Beauvais as Lucius; Joseph Bricker, Tim Frangos, Steven C. Fisher, Steven Gordon, Frank Gress, Colin Guthrie, Nicholas Jordan, Joey Major, Jacob Salazar, Lawrence Sonderling, Sky Wahl, Grace Hawthorne, Leesa Kim, and Alexandria Kunin.
Also worthy of mention is the creative team: Fight Choreographer, Cavin â€śCRâ€ť Mohrhardt; Stage Manager, Kim Cameron;* Assistant Stage Manager, JP Pollinger; Costume Designer, Tracy Wahl; Properties Master, Alexander Sheldon; Original Music by Marshall McDaniel; Sound Designers, Marshall McDaniel & Grant EscandĂłn; Lighting Designer, Zachary Moore; Associate Lighting Designer, Bri Pattillo; and Wardrobe Supervisor Beth Eslick.
*Member of Actors Equity Association.