If the seemingly endless American presidential selection season is getting you down, Classical Actors Ensemble is here to remind you, through a double dose of Shakespeare in rep - Julius Caesar and Macbeth - that things could be a lot worse. Choosing one’s leaders through assassination and civil war is a whole lot messier than anything we have going on right now.
“He’s a tried and valiant soldier.”
“So is my horse.”
After seeing CAE’s Julius Caesar, I want to see director Randall J. Funk’s take on a whole lot more Shakespeare plays. This is the first telling of Julius Caesar, and I’ve seen a few, that actually resonated with me as a human story, with human consequences, and characters I understood and cared about. You’d think that’d be the first hurdle you’d clear with a play, but with Shakespeare it all too often gets forgotten. The promise and challenge of all that beautiful language is regularly where a lot of average Shakespeare productions stop. Funk’s creative collaborators on Julius Caesar dig a whole lot deeper, and effort like that starts at the top. These are some of the best performances I’ve seen these actors give.
“Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius?”
CAE’s Julius Caesar actually makes me care about a group of assassins. Sure, their methods are all wrong, but I understand their cause and concerns. Plus, the characters who stand arrayed against them regularly show themselves to be no great prize. When “order” is restored at the end, nobody’s happy, and it’s a legitimate question whether the country is any better off. This is a production that keeps you on your toes. Your sympathies keep shifting among the cast of characters.
“Will you dine with me tomorrow?”
“Ay, if I be alive, and your mind hold, and your dinner worth the eating.”
For the uninitiated: Julius Caesar (Arthur Moss) has the support of the masses (among them, Travis Bedard, Kris Snow, Alice Tibbetts, Mason Tyer, and Daniel Kristian Vopava) but he’s clearly been reading a little too much of his own publicity, and his view of his own importance and invincibility has increased accordingly. Caesar ignores the warnings of his wife Calpurnia (Marci Lucht), and a random street person they call the Soothsayer (Lucas Gerstner) who tells him to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th, which in the play is fast approaching). [The soothsayer doesn’t appear to be played as the town drunk here, rather a homeless person who is perhaps mentally ill, an intriguing modern touch that makes you wonder what kind of dire warnings we might be ignoring every day as we, like Caesar, walk on by.]
“Three parts of him is ours already; and the man entire, upon the next encounter, yields him ours.”
Those worried about Caesar’s growing influence over Rome, led by Cassius (Peter Simmons) and Casca (Samantha Veldhouse - in a delicious and sardonic bit of cross-gender casting), settle on Brutus (Neal Beckman) as the ideal spokesman and poster boy for the opposition. Assembling a willing cast of co-conspirators - Trebonius (Michael Kelley), Metellus Cimber (Michael Ooms), and Cinna (Dakotah Brown) - they decide assassination is the only way to stop Caesar’s rapid and dangerous rise to power. Though Brutus has serious doubts, and willing sounding boards in the form of his wife Portia (Marika Proctor) and loyal servant Lucius (Morgan LeClaire), he nonetheless moves forward with the bloody plan.
“Set honour in one eye and death i’the other, and I will look on both indifferently.”
But Caesar has his own ardent supporters - most notably his right hand man Marc Antony (Daniel Ian Joeck). Along with Lepidus (Andy Schnabel) and the next Caesar in line, Octavius (Rick Miller), Marc Antony leads a counter-revolt to revenge their fallen leader.
“Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf, but that he sees the Romans are but sheep.”
Seeing this production of Julius Caesar in rep with Macbeth (directed by CAE’s artistic director Joseph Papke) finally made clear to me why Macbeth has always been a harder sell for me as an audience member. In Caesar, some of the characters have strong feelings about Caesar not being the best choice for leader of the country. It seems to genuinely be a concern for the greater good. Ambition enters into the decision, too, but it doesn’t feel like the driving force. In Macbeth, it’s all about ambition. The fact that Macbeth’s decisions will undoubtedly throw his country into turmoil is a secondary concern and doesn’t deter him from acting. He starts out as a good man, but his motivations as he moves through the story are entirely selfish. So ultimately, it’s hard for me to care.
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Macbeth (Michael Kelley) is a valiant warrior who helps turn the tide of war in his country’s favor, alongside his fellow soldier and friend, Banquo (Daniel Ian Joeck). Macbeth and Banquo stumble upon three witches in the woods (Marci Lucht, Samantha Veldhouse, Morgan LeClaire). Those witches serve up a number of enticing prophecies about future greatness for both men that quickly seem to start coming true. After sharing the news with his wife Lady Macbeth (Hannah Steblay), Macbeth is spurred on by her to eliminate all obstacles between himself and the throne of Scotland. A lot of these unfortunate obstacles are human, including the current king Duncan (Arthur Moss), and his sons Malcolm (Neal Beckman) and Donalbain (Rick Miller). In order to hang on to power, Macbeth may need to eliminate his friend Banquo, Banquo’s son Fleance (Morgan LeClaire) as well as the family of Macduff (Michael Ooms, Samantha Veldhouse and Alice Tibbetts).
“And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg, which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous; and kill him in the shell.”
The main stumbling block to the Macbeths’ plan is themselves. They are reluctant murderers at best, and their well-developed consciences give them no end of emotional pain and nightmares. The witches’ half-truths provide just enough incentive to keep on killing, but also just enough doubt and uncertainty that the Macbeths can never rest easy in their newfound good fortune. (Other unfortunate residents of Scotland caught in the crossfire include Travis Bedard, Dakotah Brown, Randall J. Funk, Lucas Gerstner, Zachary Morgan, Marika Proctor, Andy Schnabel, Peter Simmons, Mason Tyer, and Daniel Kristian Vopava.)
“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
Since most of the cast and almost all the creative team is involved with both plays, the difference in results are sometimes puzzling. Take the costumes designed by Marco T. Magno, with assistance from Genevieve Kafka. Their fantastic design for Julius Caesar, suggestive of 1920s/1930s, gives everyone involved a sharp distinctive look that invokes a feeling of nostalgia. Everyone looks great and the costumes seem to help the actors do their job onstage. In contrast, Macbeth just kind of looks random and thrown together. There’s also some serious fake beard and wig action going on for poor King Duncan. And in a baffling move, Hannah Steblay as Lady Macbeth is outfitted in something that looks vaguely nun-ish, with the added impediment of a drape billowing off of her headgear that repeatedly ends up falling into and covering her face. When you’ve got a acting powerhouse like Steblay, you don’t take away half her acting tools by covering her entire body and then hiding her face besides. Unsurprisingly, Steblay still overcomes this outfit to be the best thing in Macbeth, but I wish she didn’t have to fight so hard.
“Pray to the gods to intermit the plague that needs must light on this ingratitude.”
Then there’s the running bit in most CAE productions, present in both these offerings as well, of adlibbing as well as incorporating silent additional moments for characters. As if Shakespeare somehow missed a dick joke or just needed a little extra help outside the dialogue to really make a character’s intentions clear. In Macbeth, these things continued to misfire. But in Julius Caesar, for the most part they really worked and that’s about the last thing I thought I’d be saying in regard to that approach. The adlibs are still unnecessary, and there’s a prop gag with a wine bottle that just refuses to be funny no matter how many times they to try to insert it into the action. But the moments where the audience just gets to live with the women in this story turn out to be really powerful. Marika Proctor’s Portia and Marci Lucht’s Calpurnia, watching their husbands head off down dangerous paths and being unable to stop them, make the human consequences of this story very clear. And when Casca is captured in war and the enemy sentences her to be taken off and shot, Samantha Veldhouse doesn’t say a word in that sequence, but her defiance, even with the realization of her impending death, adds a lot to the play. It doesn’t feel like something that was slapped on, it feels like it’s part of the script. I certainly don’t want to encourage the habit, but I have to admit when it works.
“O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!”
I really didn’t expect to come out of this double feature saying I enjoyed Julius Caesar more than Macbeth, and yet that’s the case. It goes beyond whether I’m rooting for the characters or not, though. Everyone in Julius Caesar is delivering the lines as if they were real words they might actually say. They understand what they’re saying and it emerges from their mouths in a natural cadence. That applies across the whole ensemble. The previously mentioned work by Proctor and Lucht is impressive, as well as Peter Simmons’ task as Cassisus of constantly driving the plot forward. (This is the first time I’ve seen the argument scene on the battlefield between Cassius and Brutus really work. It was a treat to watch, and that’s as much Cassius as it is Brutus.) Morgan LeClaire’s supporting work as servant Lucius really sneaks up on you. And this is some of the very best work I’ve seen from CAE regulars like Neal Beckman (Brutus), Daniel Ian Joeck (Antony), and Samantha Veldhouse (Casca) - they really take the stage and give inspiring performances.
“If I do live, I will be good to thee.”
By contrast, most of the performers in Macbeth feel like they’re reciting the script rather than people speaking to one another. The weird thing is it’s the same actors. Notable exceptions to this are the Macbeths themselves. Michael Kelley might not seem to some like a traditional choice for a leading man but the actor grabs hold of the part with both hands and really makes it his own. You quickly find yourself thinking, “Yup, that’s Macbeth.” He and Hannan Steblay as Lady Macbeth make a great married couple - albeit one that makes terrible life choices. Their relationship is so strong it blinds them to the fact that other people around them might have to live with the decisions the Macbeths make. I was excited to see Hannah Steblay’s take on Lady Macbeth and she didn’t disappoint. The script often seems to call for some radical shifts from one scene to the next for Lady M, but Steblay makes it all flow together naturally. The big mad scene at the end (you know, “out damned spot”) had so many different levels it was a delight to watch. The variety of things Steblay does with her voice in just that one scene is quite breathtaking.
“The evil that men do lives after them;
the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Even the CAE house band’s musical interludes before the show and between acts seem to work better for Julius Caesar than for Macbeth. Though Macbeth’s musical bits seem jarring, I have to admit that watching Steblay gleefully sing the Romantics' “(I Hear The Secrets That You Keep, When You’re) Talking In Your Sleep” makes me wish Lady Macbeth had a cabaret act.
“Do not presume too much upon my love: I may do that I shall be sorry for.”
“You have done that you should be sorry for!”
The whole “let’s really punch up the comedy in Macbeth” approach for this production is an odd one, and it doesn’t really hang together very well. Horror comedy, even when the comedy is pitch black, is a hard thing to pull off successfully. Kelley and Steblay give it their best shot, and in the places it almost works, it’s down to them. Maybe that’s part of what’s throwing everyone else off. How do you reconcile yourself to being the “straight man” in the sketch comedy world of the Macbeths, how do you take yourself seriously? The strange viewing experience here is that Julius Caesar is the more complex and difficult of the two scripts to wrap your head around, and yet that production was crystal clear and felt like it clipped right along. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shorter and more straightforward plays from a plotting standpoint, and yet this production felt longer and more confusing than Caesar.
“Coward die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
Classical Actors Ensemble’s pairing of Julius Caesar and Macbeth thematically is a good move. Macbeth is worth seeing for the two lead performances, but Julius Caesar is the overall standout in the double bill this time. It’s the Julius Caesar that Shakespeare fans have been waiting for, and that everyone else didn’t know they needed, but will be very happy they saw. Go, see for yourself.
Julius Caesar - 5 stars - Very Highly Recommended
Macbeth - 3 stars - Recommended
(Photos: Left - Casca (Samantha Veldhouse) threatens Cassius (Peter Simmons) in Julius Caesar; Right - Lady Macbeth (Hannah Steblay) descends into madness; photography by Kory Koehnen)