Theater Review: JULIUS CAESAR (African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco)

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by Stacy Trevenon on March 21, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Modern theater companies traditionally place Shakespeare into all kinds of settings, eras and cultures in search of new or updated relevance. While the choices for many endeavors feel largely arbitrary, the African-American Shakespeare Company sets Julius Caesar amongst the surreal violence of Africa. This inspired pairing brilliantly elucidates political maneuvering, brutal violence as a way of life, and the brotherhood of politics and pawns. It also underscores the timelessness of the Bard’s play, which is believed to have been written in the final years of the heirless Queen Elizabeth I (1599) to reflect worries of civil war breaking out upon her death. Michael Gene Sullivan’s innovative, hard-hitting direction explores untapped potential in this edgy story as his Julius Caesar jumps centuries ahead to Africa’s unending unrest; thus, political machinations of ancient Rome and the civil wars of modern Africa, centuries apart but parallel, meet at the Buriel Clay Theatre.

Six actors seamlessly phase in and out of multiple roles in this enjoyable production, which offers surprising bits of comic relief along with the engrossing drama. L. Jeffrey Moore rules the stage with a lordly beneficence as Caesar. David Moore plays Brutus, the friend to Caesar who is cajoled into a murderous conspiracy, and B. Chico Purdiman as Cassius inspires shudders as the muckraker who whips up that collusion. Fred Pitts sets an ominous, edgy tone as the soothsayer who foreshadows the Ides of March, converting to loving sincerity as Antony, offering a heartfelt delivery as the one who manipulates Brutus’ own words to stir the Roman people into taking vengeance on Caesar’s killers.

Amy Lizardo is compassionate as Calpurnia but shifts to hard-edged as a soldier in battle. Tristan Cunningham, also in various roles, is frighteningly steely yet capable of powerful emotional depths on the field of battle: her silent acting when lifelong friend Brutus asks her to fulfill a vow of friendship by holding the dagger on which he can impale himself is unforgettable.

The actors make full use of the intimate space, leaping, sprawling, lurking and pounding up and down the aisles, in front of the stage, and on Paul Riley’s contemporary freeway underpass set with a haunting city silhouette behind, reinforcing the play’s mood and timelessness. An African dialect is authentically utilized by the players (coaching by Lynette Soufer); combined with Shakespeare’s lush verbiage, it can challenge listeners intent on catching every word, but it does nicely round out the image of time and place. Durand Garcia choreographs ferocious and complex stage combats with real machetes. The sound effects – from a roaring crowd to the staccato firing of a machine-gun – are terrific finishing touches.

What sets this interpretation apart from so many updated productions is the frightening way it reflects today’s global ills. The far-seeing Bard could just as easily have made a similar bull’s-eye comment on hotbeds more familiar to Bay Area audiences, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ireland. The real tragedy is that this exciting production has such a short run.

photos by Lance Huntley

Julius Caesar
African-American Shakespeare Company at the Buriel Clay Theater
ends on April 1, 2012
for tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit African-American Shakes

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