Friday, August 1, 2003

Leaders look out: Beware Election Day

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are times when loyalty to a higher ideal must surmount loyalty to a leader, and when those "in the know" believe that the people must be saved from themselves. Witness, for example, the politically divided nation in which we dwell: For many dissenters against war and imperialism, against unrestricted police surveillance and ignored freedom of information laws, loyalty to liberty trumps any fealty to President George W. Bush.

They fear losing the foundations on which this country is built. They join a grand (if not conspiracy, then) alignment, to bring down King Dubya. And yet, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar warns, the Bush-backing majority (though their numbers are falling), would take their own revenge on any successful conspirators, sinking the teeth of their ballots into the fleshy political careers of those who would gainsay the nation’s leader in a time of crisis.

Julius Caesar, at the Theater at Monmouth through August 22, is the most politically insightful play performed on Maine stages this summer, and it is brilliantly done.

(Enough about the distance. Monmouth is less than 90 minutes from Portland. You’d drive further to a Boston theater. Save time, see great theater, keep the money in Maine. It’s not that far. Really.)

In brand-new seats in the theater’s beautifully ornate surroundings, the trappings of power never seemed so real. This group of professional actors, most handling more than one role in the four plays TAM has running simultaneously, truly understand Shakespeare, his language and his characters.

The street scenes hearken directly back to the days of the Globe Theater, which it is believed opened for the first time with this show in 1599. Plebians among the audience look up at the aristocrats, catcalling and conferring among themselves. This is the raucous populism that made Shakespeare famous in his own time.

Julius Caesar himself (Mark S. Cartier) is excellent as the publicly adored citizen-king, who humbly refuses the crown thrice and arrogantly throws off the warning of a soothsayer (Jonathan Miller) to "beware the ides of March."

Cassius (Joshua Scharback) is also a victim of hubris — a particularly virulent sort — infecting as it does Brutus (Paul L. Coffey) and the rest of the conspirators.

The lessons of how power works are legion in this play. Brutus is vital to the plot because he can get close to Caesar, yet numbers are important for safety. The manipulation of information is clear, as is the flouting of substantive warnings. It all sounds painfully similar to the newspaper headlines, and yet these words are 400 years old.

Brutus issues a warning Bush and his cronies should heed: "The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power."

All of the ensemble cast are top-notch, from Portia’s (Adele Bruni) impassioned wifely plea for her husband’s trust to the dream reinterpretation by Decius Brutus (Dennis A. Price). The staging is courageous, adding tableaux where Shakespeare had none, Caesar’s ghost watching the slaughter that follows his death.

The music (some taken from the Gladiator soundtrack), sound effects, and lighting all combine in a full, rich atmosphere that keeps the play moving and its central tensions close about the audience. Violin notes, as in Eyes Wide Shut, up the blood pressure, as sinister words disturb the miasmic air. Lighting illuminates the harshness and desperation. With the cherubim watching from the ceiling, the suspension of disbelief is complete.

Brutus and Cassius play well off each other, and Coffey, playing Brutus, remains in command of his character’s complex mind, switching immediately from the Quisling murderer to a man who can say with only a touch of comic irony, "Publius, good cheer," as a senator cringes in fright.

It is then that Mark Antony (Jeffrey Thomas) comes into his own with grand eloquence and great emotion. Thomas handles triumphantly the most famous speech of the play, his eulogy of Caesar, not just a tribute to a fallen leader but a call to arms. Ripe with scorn and sarcasm, his voice literally dripping with contempt, it is as if Thomas himself will go backstage and bring forth actor Coffey, out of costume and pleading for mercy.

Yet Antony’s motives are not without impure effect. The slaughter that begins as the factions split and mobs roam the streets is, in part, his doing, too. Caesar’s spirit’s most frightening act occurs when the mob seizes a poet who shares a name with a conspirator. Cinna the poet is beaten and carried off, echoing the fates of people like management consultant Asif Iqbal of Rochester, New York. His crime? He shares a name with a suspected Al Qaeda member now held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. The innocent young professional finds himself now on a government terrorism watch list.

Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Greenham. With Mark S. Cartier, Paul L. Coffey, Joshua Scharback, and Sally Wood. At the Theater at Monmouth, through Aug. 22. Call (207) 933-9999.

BACKSTAGE

• Check out Maine’s Civil War history on stage with Frank Wicks’ Soldier, Come Home at Brunswick’s First Parish Church, Friday, August 8, at 7:30 p.m. It’s based on letters between Wicks’s great-grandparents, Philip and Mary Pringle, as Philip fought with the Union Army. To reserve the $10 tickets, call (207) 729-6606.

• A reprise of The Food Chain by Nicky Silver raised some good cash toward better seating at the PSC Studio Theater, but they could still use more, so open your wallets or pay with your behinds.

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