By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to Circling the News
A palpable joy filled the audience at Theatricum Botanicum when Julius Caesar began.
After more than a year without local theater, the crowd exploded with applause when narrator and soothsayer Gerald Rivers stepped onto the Topanga Canyon stage to begin the first show of the summer season.
His character’s commentary, an addition to William Shakespeare’s original play, was interspersed throughout the drama, and pointed out parallels between the societal problems of today and those in ancient Rome, which in the play stem from the rise of a populist leader, intense animosity between two groups, and eventually, war and death.
The soothsayer described himself as an amateur sociologist who loves “exploring how society affects people and how people affect society” and later after a storm portending the disruption to their world, he states, “Civil strife simmers in each man’s soul,” a comment that is illustrated as events unfold.
The play, directed by Ellen Geer, centers around the build-up to Julius Caesar’s assassination and the fall-out from that event. A highlight is the famed funeral oration by Mark Antony, who is portrayed with gravity and charisma by Michael McFall. From a balcony he lauds the good deeds of Caesar (Mark Lewis), who strode the stage with vigor and good humor, while mocking the “honorable” Brutus’s attempts to characterize the fallen leader as one who only sought absolute power.
The death of Caesar eventually leads to the downfall of the conspirators allied against him. As battle lines are drawn, Caesar’s opponents are adorned in red, while his defenders fight in blue. They march and clang swords across the expansive multi-faceted stage and its hilly, oak-shadowed backdrop.
Brutus (Christopher W. Jones), the tortured, moralistic anti-hero, who convinced himself that the murder of his friend Caesar was necessary to keep Rome free from tyranny, joins with the passionately argumentative and duplicitous Cassius (Melora Marshall), Casca (Franc Ross), Trebonius (Steven C. Fisher) and other collaborators to commit the murder. Despite Brutus’ seemingly noble goals, his plot does the opposite of what he intended, driving Rome into chaos and ushering in its first emperor, Octavius (Eric Flores).
Throughout, the actors dive into their roles. The ensemble fights the battles with conviction and alacrity, while key moments of pathos occur, such as a loving scene between Brutus and his concerned wife, Portia, (Willow Geer).
Sporadically, the action pauses, and the soothsayer/narrator shares a commentary, for example about Rome’s widening gap between rich and poor that he argues was a factor leading to the portrayed violence. At each of these moments, he points out how our society and previous ones have struggled with the same issue.
The idea that this historical tale has replayed itself again and again throughout the years, never to good result, is the primary lens through which director Geer asks us to view the play. At play’s end, the audience, who have been enlisted to participate in the production as citizens of Rome, are asked to go forth and find a way to address society’s ills that will not result in similar violence and loss.
“How can we tell a new story?” the narrator/soothsayer states.
For tickets, which range from $15-$60 for adults and $10 for children, visit theatricum.com.