Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's a bloody evening of theatre, but not always bloody great

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From left, Ryan Miller, Steven Ratzlaff and Kevin Klassen in Julius Caesar.


From left, Ryan Miller, Steven Ratzlaff and Kevin Klassen in Julius Caesar. Photo Store

Julius Caesar is one of The Bard's most violent plays, and as the bodies piled up by the end of the Shakespeare in the Ruins' revival, it became clear that one of the victims was the audience's emotional connection to the bloody tragedy.

SIR's 20th anniversary production, which enjoyed one of the company's most beautiful opening nights (especially pleasant for the Ides of March), has its moments of brilliance but overall fails to produce a moving evening of theatre.

Director Sarah Constible applies a Canadian patina to the story about the assassination of Julius Caesar by setting it in Ottawa during the 1970 October Crisis, which followed a wave of bombings and kidnapping by the independence-minded Front de liberation du Quebec in Montreal.

The contemporary resonance turns out to be minimal and the idea that Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Caesar-esque is inconsequential. The structure of Constible's adaptation is that two pages named Claudius and Varro are conducting a tour of Ottawa's Parliament building, during which the audience is inadvertently witness to scenes of intrigue and worse. The guides, who also direct the crowd around the grounds of the ruins, offer comic remarks on the action that often undermine the serious business of plotting and carrying out regicide. At worst, it is distracting.

One of the ironies of Julius Caesar is that much of it takes place in offices, so desks are set up on the lawns or in the ruins. SIR is exceptional at getting the most out of the pastoral site and again it succeeds -- most notably in the attack on Caesar, but less so in the crucial funeral speeches of Brutus and Marc Antony.

The audience watches the shocking knifing -- a messy murder weapon for a bunch of suits -- in front of a stunning view of a glassy LaSalle River. The bloody hands of the killers stand out vividly against the leafy shore. The eulogies have Brutus and Marc Antony at a dais, and at dusk with the sky still bright behind them, it is difficult to see the faces that went with their rabble-rousing words.

Julius Caesar clocks in at a tidy two-plus hours, thanks to Constible's directorial shaping, which touches on all of the main issues of political self-justification, in-fighting and mob malleability. There are no black-hatted villains at work; there are well-meaning idealists with a passionate longing to fix the world, but who instead bring it down upon them.

Maybe Caesar gets his name on the title page and his picture on the front of the program, but it is Brutus's play. It is his story arc -- a patriot egged on by venal advisers to take down their leader and save the Roman republic. Kevin Klassen is a naturally sympathetic figure and his humanity shows through in his fine performance as Brutus, the killer with a conscience. The essentially decent Brutus doesn't appear to have the stomach for his murderous deed, as he drinks Alka-Seltzer to relieve his "internal insurrection."

Steven Ratzlaff as Caesar makes an entrance familiar to today's voters, glad-handing with the audience while his security detail hovers in trench coats and oversized '70s glasses. There is nothing in his appearance that suggests Trudeau, not even a rose in his lapel. Ratzlaff is nonetheless convincing as a man who would be dictator but who is also a bit of a buffoon, easily flattered by a plotter into appearing at work, where he is to be murdered. More importantly, he supplies necessary gravitas that underlines the influence that Caesar will exert after his slaying.

Traditionally, Julius Caesar is a sausage party for conspirators, as only men in ancient Rome were involved in politics. Women lacked power and influence, and Shakespeare reflected that by giving only two minor roles to women: the wives of Caesar and Brutus appear long enough to fruitlessly beg their husbands to stay safe before disappearing. Calpurnia gets her one scene, but Constible does away with Portia's in a brief phone call.

The best move Constible makes is to inject some female wiles into Julius Caesar by having Cassius played by a woman, bringing the powerful presence of Marina Stephenson Kerr into the scheming. Her Cassius is a political animal, compellingly "lean and hungry." She brazenly wears her desires on her chest, an audacious dagger pin attached to the lapel of her stylish black power suit. Stephenson Kerr's forceful portrayal of a manipulative woman who "misconstrued everything," is one of the drama's pleasures.

Andrew Cecon's Marc Antony is a piece of work who throws in with the killers to save his neck but, ever the opportunist, turns on them in his famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech. Like a puppetmaster, Cecon, with his smarmy mustache and bushy sideburns, expertly incites those countrymen to take murderous retribution.

The supporting cast of Rob McLaughlin, Ross McMillan, Toby Hughes, Ryan Miller and Michelle Boulet displayed competence and versatility.

Julius Caesar still has much to say, as talk of regime change pops up in the news regularly. Shakespeare 400-year-old message to ambition men and women remains current: be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 G3

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