Sunday, August 4, 2013

Caesar Takes Hillsboro Civic Center by Storm

The production features an all-female cast. Photo by Casey Campbell
"Thought-provoking" interpretation goes beyond "adaptation"
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Take Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare’s best known and most often performed plays. Mess with the script – move things around, add new dialogue, condense from the original five to only two (relatively short) acts. Cast the almost all-male show entirely with women, stage it in the round, without amplification, and do it outdoors – in Oregon. What could go wrong? Probably a lot, but in Scott Palmer’s remarkable staging of Julius Caesar for Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage – nothing!

Palmer’s approach to the play goes well beyond “adaptation” – his casting, costumes (wonderfully timeless creations by costume designer Melissa Heller), staging and script work together to reimagine the play into a powerful and cohesive story that breathes new life into what can be a mind-numbing maze of plots and characters. Remarkably, the all-woman cast is in many ways the least revolutionary feature – although it may be the casting that frees Palmer, his actors, and his audience from 500 years of convention. The dry, sneaky Roman patricians skulking around the Forum in togas and sandals have been stripped to their barbaric essence - a tribe of earthy, wild haired warriors passionately defending their vision of Rome’s greatness.

In Palmer’s opening address, he refers to his cast as a group of “kick ass” women, which hardly prepares the audience for the raw physicality permeating the production. Cyndi Rhoads plays the expanded role of Julius Caesar as a compelling, but somewhat delusional leader who has begun to believe his own press. Rebecca Ridenour as Caesar’s closest friend, Brutus, perfectly captures the character’s angst at being forced to choose principle over affection. Marc Antony’s assertion that Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all is abundantly supported by Ridenour’s portrayal of the tragic patriot. The second prong of the triumvirate of assassins, Cassius (Arianne Jacques), provides a powerful contrast to Brutus’ purity – Jacques gives Cassius a sly and manipulative persona that fits well with Caesar’s perception of his enemy. Clara Hillier as the third prong, Casca, offers a strong, clear voice and superb acting in a physically demanding role.

Stephanie Leppert brings to the role of Brutus’ wife Portia at least as much power as any of her “male” colleagues.   One of the most moving moments in the play comes from the skillful blend of her beautiful voice and hysterical sobbing after Caesar’s death. Cassie Greer plays Caesar’s staunchest supporter, Marc Antony, with a combination of sincere love for his leader and a sophisticated political acumen. She especially shines in Caesar’s funeral eulogy, and she gives a humorous reading of Antony’s sly oratorical skill when she “accidentally” reveals the contents of Caesar’s will to the citizens of Rome.

 It is difficult to believe that there are only eleven cast members in the production – during battle scenes, with staffs flying, John Armour’s superb fight choreography relieves emotional tension by creating the sights, sounds and fury of pitched conflict. The minimalist set effectively utilizes not only the area encircled by the audience, but the entire Civic Center Plaza, to recreate the Roman Forum and the plains of Philippi.

In the hands of this astonishing ensemble of “kick ass” women, Julius Caesar delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking evening that is much more accessible to modern audiences than Mr. Shakespeare’s original work.

Bag&Baggage’s production of Julius Caesar runs through August 17th with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

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