Review: Julius Caesar (Groundling/Crow’s)

After being thrilled to bits by Chris Abraham’s Tartuffe at Canadian Stage, I will tell you truly that I had high expectations for his Julius Caesar at Streetcar Crowsnest. So high, in fact, that to balance my natural enthusiasm I brought a friend who suffers attenuated residual high-school Shakespeare exhaustion and who greeted all my protestations that it would be exciting with a grim “we’ll see.” Let the record show: I was right. This Julius Caesar is fantastic.

In case you also zoned out during Grade 10 English, Julius Caesar is the story of a dictator who consolidates power through betrayal and is then slain by his closest associates – some for reasons of envy or greed and some because they believe that an unchecked dictator is always, necessarily, dangerous. His right hand man and successor, Mark Antony, goes to war against the insurrectionists and gains control of Rome, where he rules as part of a triumvirate for years to follow. Considering that it’s a tale of 2000 years ago, written by a playwright of 400 years ago, the universal themes really haven’t aged much at all.

This production capitalizes on the universality of the tale by updating it with a freshness that feels utterly correct and immediately relatable. Chris Abraham’s vision of this Julius Caesar feels crisp and alert, with a “foreword” and “epilogue” that set the history and collect the themes, respectively. The dress is contemporary and somewhat tongue-in-cheek at moments (#lupercal), but the language of the somewhat abridged modern text isn’t updated at all except where genders are different. The combination is peerless, and also faithful to the original in spirit if not in letter, letting the spectacle of a spectacle be, well, spectacular.

Jim Mezon as Caesar hits a mark somewhere between a mafia don and a Wall Street lawyer, the kind of man my grandfather would have described as “often wrong, but never uncertain.” Brutus, excellently played by Dion Johnstone, is complex and seeking; exactly the honest man with every good intention who might find himself misused by scheming friends. And the rest of the cast, including Toronto theatre luminaries like Walter Borden and Jani Lauzon, are at the top of their games. Mention must also be made of André Sills’ Casca in particular, who feels silkily dangerous in every scene.

Limning it all is the set and lighting design of Lorenzo Savoiani, who’s genius is his ability to invoke with a few elements the strong sense of a space or place. This Julius Caesar is performed in the round, with no scrim or backdrop to hide behind, and so every bit of effect – from storm-lashed night in a senator’s office to public funeral for a head of state – is accomplished with light, a few well-chosen pieces of furniture, and the odd prop element. Costume designer Ming Wong not only finds the right notes, similarly, but enjoys a few extremely nerdy jokes that I found irresistible, like branded SPQR sportswear for the Roman at leisure.

Not everyone in the theatre loved this. At intermission, I heard a woman huff “Imagine, thinking you could improve Shakespeare.” If you require a full toga-and-Gielgud experience, stay home. Otherwise – even if you have resisted Shakespeare for decades – I recommend this production, at once tense and tender, most highly.

Details

  • Julius Caesar  plays at the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre (345 Carlaw Ave.) until Feb 2nd, 2020.
  • Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 PM and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00PM.
  • Tickets are $30-55 and can be purchased online, by calling (647) 341-7390 ext. 1010, or in person at the Theatre Box Office.
  • The show is approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with intermission, and involves strobe lighting; haze effects; multiple gunshot sound effects; loud sudden noises.
  • This play contains scenes of graphic violence that could be upsetting to some members of the audience. This productions’ content includes suicide and graphic images that could cause extreme distress to some individuals.

photo of the cast by Dahlia Katz

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