Review: Julius Caesar by Emily Ann Theatre
by Michael Meigs
The conspirators of the Ides of March are at work deep in the hills south of Austin, Texas.
Wimberley is a township with a population of fewer than 4000 persons, but its EmilyAnn Theatre is currently staging a muscular, articulate Julius Caesar that is well worth the winding 45-minute drive through ranch country.
Known principally for summer musicals and the long running annual "Shakespeare Under The Stars" for young people, the park and outdoor amphitheatre of the EmilyAnn have served as a community gathering point for past eleven years. Newly appointed theatre operations manager Bridget Farias, who directed The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale in previous seasons, has expanded the program by recruiting experienced Shakespearians from Austin for the four-weekend run.
Outdoors in October? That seemed entirely plausible during this past summer's drought and record-breaking heat, but rains and relatively cooler weather have moved in since mid-September. Texans aren't used to chill, and many in the audience this past Saturday were wrapped in blankets as the evening temperature sank into the low 60's. But no one was leaving.
Farias places the action in an indeterminate "now," in which Caesar is besieged by a press corps and Marc Anthony wears camouflage pants while running his race. Cassius sticks an automatic pistol into his waistband but prefers his switchblade.
These are visual changes, for the most part. The text is abridged somewhat but rarely altered -- for example, Cassius is brandishing his automatic pistol in IV, iii during the quarrel with Brutus when he exclaims, "There is my dagger,/ And here my naked breast; within, a heart/ Dearer than Pluto's mine, richer than gold:/ If that thou be'st a Roman, take it forth." Later, Farias omits the business of Brutus seeking someone to hold steady a sword at his suicide, choosing instead the lifting of a pistol, a blackout, and a shot.
Capable women actors play Decius, Lucius and Messala, so an occasional "he" becomes "she" with no loss to the action.
As Brutus, Judd Farris is sober and intellectual, with emotions under tight control -- in contrast to his lascivious, prancing Touchstone this past summer and his bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek the year before, both done with Austin's Scottish Rite Theatre. Farris establishes Brutus with the self-awareness and stature of a tragic hero. Opposite him as Cassius, Ernesto "Roze" Rosas is muscular and animated rather than lean and hungry, a dangerous man in a fight. Their quarrel in Act IV becomes the clash of stiff Anglo intellect and Latino passion, an unexpected Texas insight to the play.
Beyond that core duo, however, one would wish for greater reflection from the principals. D. Heath Thompson's Caesar is an unsmiling public man, apparently with little intuition; the implication of the staging is that his agenda is probably set by the latest polls.
Trey Palmer's Antony dissembles adequately with the conspirators and is affecting in his grief over the corpse. He shows the audience an early, unholy glee about his immediate intention to undermine the murderers. With the funeral oration ("Friends, Romans, countrymen. . .) Palmer gathers momentum, plays with our emotions, and thrills the crowd -- both the audience and those in the cast who have insinuated themselves among them in the amphitheatre. The rhythm here is terrific, certainly the fruit of a close and deliberate collaboration between him and director Bridget Farias. His Antony rouses the populace and they storm off in a fine climax with Caesar's body on a bier. But Palmer forfeits many of those chips with the audience with the big grin as he delivers the tag lines (Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou what course thou wilt!).
Special mention goes to Daniel Lefave as the "blunt fellow" Casca, the first ordinary conspirator recruited by Cassius. Lefave shows him as a physically awkward publicity hack for Caesar. Casca stumbles, glowers and grimaces; he's ill-dressed and credulous, exactly the sort of follower or fall guy required for such an enterprise.
This production moves fast and far, regularly penetrating the audience space or plunging into the semi-lighted woods on either side of the stage. For example, Cassius dispatches Tititinius (Rob Novak) to reconnoitre in V, iii, and Novak races up the central aisle of the amphitheatre. Cassius and Pindarus, under pressure and in confusion, scan the distance behind the audience and come to the fatal, erroneous conclusion that Titinius has been overwhelmed.
The EmilyAnn's production sustains the bard and earns considerable credit for the director, cast and supporters. The good folk of Wimberley are well served, considering that this is one of two very active theatre companies in the community. Any Austinites not willing to make the drive are missing out.
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1101 Ranch Road 2325
Wimberley, TX, 78676