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Andrew Borba’s Fresh Approach to Julius Caesar Pays Big Dramatic Dividends for PlayMakers

PlayMakers Rep’s presentation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar stars Jeffrey Blair Cornell (left) as Brutus and C. David Johnson (center) as Caesar, shown here with Adam Poole (right) (photo by HuthPhoto)

Under Andrew Borba’s direction, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar strikes a very keen balance between the sometimes conflicting goals of “remaining true to tradition” and “providing a fresh approach.” And the company’s success in this endeavor is strikingly apparent well before the first line is ever spoken.

Scenic designer Jan Chambers has eye-catchingly dressed PRC’s thrust stage to suggest the impending descent of the well-ordered Roman Republic into the chaos that follows the assassination of Julius Caesar (100? BCE-44 BCE). “Splashes” of red on the floor foreshadow the inevitable bloodshed, and a jagged “rift” runs the entire width of the lower level, signifying the polarization of the populace.

On the highest level (at the back of the set), huge replicas of marble columns establish that, yes, we are in ancient Rome. The furthest stage-right columns are clean and intact; to the left of those, we see columns stained with red that have sustained some damage, and the furthest stage-left is a totally red column with its base destroyed, and it is hanging over a blood-red oblivion.

Tia James stars as Mark Antony in PlayMakers Rep’s production of Julius Caesar (photo by HuthPhoto)

Sound designer/composer Kate Hopgood has complimented the scenic design with throbbing tribal-sounding preshow music. On this otherwise empty stage, a sole figure stands — dead-center — with her back to the audience, surveying the scene. Costume designer Grier Coleman has clothed this figure so as to suggest a hermit-like Soothsayer. As this Soothsayer’s gaze moves from stage-right to stage-left, we get the impression that she is experiencing a vision of the upcoming disintegration of the Roman Republic.

This character leaves the stage when it is time for “the curtain speech”; and after that speech, the action of the play begins with a very inspired touch. It is easy, you see, to forget that the opening scene of Julius Caesar is set during the festival of Lupercalia, that the partying-in-the-streets in which the Plebeians are indulged should be celebrating Romulus and Remus’ legendary founding of Rome, rather than Caesar’s victory over his one-time political ally, Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE).

In observance of Lupercalia, the Plebeians have donned wolf-like masks; and they are drinking from a keg of beer that they have carried onstage. The obvious dissonance created by the fact that they are observing the founding of Rome at the same time that they are celebrating the victory of Roman-over-Roman in a civil war easily explains why Murellus and Flavius so swiftly become so angry and impatient with the mindless reveling.

AhDream Smith (left) and Kathryn Hunter-Williams star as Calpurnia and Portia (photo by HuthPhoto)

With the stage thus set, the actors’ expert delivery of the Bard’s lines takes over. The parts are all well-cast, and there is nonstop magic in the characters’ interactions. Particularly impressive portrayals include:

  1. Samuel Ray Gates as Casca. In Act 1, Scene 2, he makes the character deserve Brutus’ description of him as “a blunt fellow”; and in later scenes, it becomes obvious that this was merely a put-on.
  2. Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Portia. On the eve of the Ides of March, she plays the concerned (almost hovering) wife to the hilt. The next morning, the character’s nervous distraction is equally well-played.
  3. Sergio Mauritz Ang as Lucius. The character is just plain cute.

Other strong points in the show include:

  1. Grier Coleman’s costume designs, which include suggestions of ancient Rome, nicely melded with pieces from a variety of other places and times, thereby underscoring the universality of the themes in this story.
  2. The choice of having Tori Jewell deliver the Soothsayer’s initial line as though she was just then having the vision of doom. Also: the Soothsayer’s makeup — her eyes are killer!
  3. The choice to have various characters enter from the audience at times, and the choice to stage the funeral speeches of Brutus (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Antony Tia James, so that the plebeians would be in full view of the entire audience as they are swayed first by Brutus and then by Antony.
  4. Various “bits” including — among other sight gags — Cassius (Lisa Wolpe) swiping a bottle of wine at one point and breaking out a whiskey flask at another.
  5. “Blood” flowing from Caesar’s body.
  6. The statue (combined with designer Kate McGee’s lighting) that underscores Caesar’s domination over certain scenes both before and after his death. Also: two different banners that adorn Caesar’s statue — one purple and one red.

And I could continue….

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Julius Caesar stars Lisa Wolpe as Cassius (photo by HuthPhoto)

From the Department of Picky-Picky:

  1. Even though every production of every Shakespeare play is cut (out of necessity), I was disappointed when some of my favorite lines were missing. (But then, several lines were included that have been omitted from other productions that I have seen.)
  2. The dark lighting of the dark scenes was certainly appropriate, but it was a little too dark for my taste.

The Bottom Line:

I heartily recommend this show! As a dyed-in-the-wool Shakespeare Nerd, I am overjoyed to have had the opportunity to see this, my third professional production of Julius Caesar. Having attended a Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play at The Swan in Stratford and an American Shakespeare Center production at The Blackfriars in Staunton, VA (in addition to a few community-theater and university-theater productions), I can attest that PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production at the Paul Green Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC ranks right up there among the best.

Order tickets ASAP — I predict sold-out houses.

Optional Afterword:

As an English major, I studied the play as an undergraduate and again in graduate school. Having read the text numerous times, having seen various film versions, and having performed in a community-theater production myself, I feel qualified to pass judgment, and I judge this show: “Well done!”

Samuel Ray Gates stars as Casca in PlayMakers Rep’s rendition of Julius Caesar (photo by HuthPhoto)

SECOND OPINION: March 10th Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham review by Garrett Southerland: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd89.html; and March 2nd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Megan Missey: https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2020/03/playmakers-julius-caesar-0303.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents William Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR at 7:30 p.m. March 10-13, 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 14, 2 p.m. March 15, 7:30 p.m. March 21, and 2 p.m. March 22 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 and up students) on Community Night (Tuesday, March 10th).

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/events.

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/julius-caesar/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/220139939162466/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep/videos/197714821328253/.

PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/PlayMakers-Presents-Julius-Caesar-Mar-4-to-22-2020.pdf.

2019-20 SEASON (Legacy Now): http://playmakersrep.org/season/2019-2020/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/about-us/paul-green-theatre/ and http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/paul-green-theatre/.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10th.

NOTE 3: There will be a FREE pre-show discussion, starting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11th, and two post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, March 15th, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 17th, performances.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 14th (for more information, click here).

NOTE 5: Seed Art Share of Raleigh will partner with PlayMakers Rep on a Share the Show initiative to provide FREE child care for children aged 4-11 at the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, March 14th, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 20th, performances.

NOTE 6: The Psychoanalytic Center of the Carolinas will sponsor a FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion, led by Harold Kudler, MD, after the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, March 22nd, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

Julius Caesar (Roman general and ruler, nee Gaius Julius Caesar, 100? BCE-44 BCE): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Caesar-Roman-ruler (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar (Wikipedia).

Julius Caesar (The Tragedy of Julius Caesar) (1599 five-act tragedy): https://www.bl.uk/works/julius-caesar (British Library), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Julius-Caesar-by-Shakespeare (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.folger.edu/julius-caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/julius-caesar-4976 (Internet Broadway Database), https://americanshakespearecenter.com/events/julius-caesar-2016/ (American Shakespeare Center), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar_(play) (Wikipedia).

The Script: https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/JC_TextIntro/complete/ (Internet Shakespeare Editions).

Study Guide: https://www.bard.org/study-guides/julius-caesar-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).

William Shakespeare (English playwright and poet, 1564-1616): https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Shakespeare (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare (Folger Shakespeare Library), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/william-shakespeare/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/intro/index.html (Internet Shakespeare Editions), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/william-shakespeare-8638 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000636/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).

Andrew Borba (Los Angeles, CA director and teacher): https://drama.arts.uci.edu/faculty/andrew-borba (University of California, Irvine bio), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/andrew-borba/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0095960/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/borba.andrew (Facebook page).

REVIEWER: Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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