Julius Caesar is an ambitious play for a community group to perform.
What’s more, it’s a play preoccupied with the dangers of ambition – namely, how it can lead to you being whacked.
So whatever Moving Parts Theatre was thinking when it decided to put on the show, they must have known it was a gamble.
Thankfully it paid off.
It turns out there are valuable lessons to be learned in watching a bunch of Romans spend two and a half hours sticking daggers into each others’ backs.
Yes: two and a half hours. It’s long show.
That’s but one of many challenges the play presents. This is a world of moral ambiguity.
Motives are not usually clear. Characters aren’t easily sorted as either good or evil.
A more useful system of categorization would be bonehead or backstabbing schemer.
It’s not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, either. When most troupes look for tragedy, they reach for Macbeth or Hamlet, or, if feeling particularly gloomy, King Lear.
There are a few famous lines: “let slip the dogs of war,”“beware the ides of March,” and, of course, “et tu, Brute?”
But there’s no celebrated balcony scene, no existential musings of Hamlet, no crazy king on the heath.
Instead, the play is propelled by the plot to overthrow Caesar and the chaos that follows. Brutus, Caesar’s trusted minister, gets sucked into the conspiracy.
Strong principal actors carry the play.
The mop-headed Doug Mayre is convincing as the weasely Cassius, who eggs on Brutus to join the plot.
Not that Brutus, played as well-meaning but a tad dopey by Anton Solomon, needs much persuading.
Women are always more devious than men in Shakespeare, and Mary Sloan gets the point while playing devious Casca, hardly inhibited by a broken leg.
But the play’s highlight owes entirely to Winluck Wong, a young talent who won praise in his recent lead role in the Elephant Man, and who steals this show as Mark Antony.
The words “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” will be familiar to almost anyone, but the speech to follow, which could be a textbook case of how to incite a riot, is delivered by Wong as a masterful bit of political rhetoric.
Speaking Shakespeare isn’t easy. The grammar and strange turns of phrase are 400 years old and unfamiliar to our ears.
Rush and mumble through and it soon sounds, as Casca would say, “all Greek” to us. Some minor characters in the cast are still mastering their delivery.
But Wong knows where to pause, where to strike emphasis.
The speech, given at Caesar’s funeral, is a case study of how to say one thing and do another. Antony stirs up a rebellion against the assassins, who he insists are “honourable men.” Every repetition of the phrase makes the words ring more hollow.
The way Wong works the crowd is entirely convincing. It’s during moments like these that we remember why Shakespeare matters still, by reminding us of the power words possess.
Like any community performance with actors with experience ranging from the professional training of Solomon to that of first-time performers, the play has its rough patches.
Most death scenes are unintentionally funny in their half-heartedness. Caesar’s assassination makes a pillow fight look vicious by comparison.
The play does not end happily. And, as the bodies pile up, energy begins to sag. One wonders why the script wasn’t pared down to keep the production shorter.
Canned thunder claps and other sound effects are at times hokey and disrupt rather than deepen the play’s spell.
And no sport sandals, please. A Roman soldier in Tevas? Bare feet would be better.
The opening performance on Wednesday evening saw a half-full house at Wood Street Centre, with a crowd of about 40 attending.
The play continues with evening performances this Friday and Saturday, and on Tuesday, February 24, at 8 p.m.
Matinee are to be held on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $15. They’re available at Well-Read Books and at the door.
Contact John Thompson at email@example.com.