The conspirators of the Ides of March are deep at work in the hills south of Austin, Texas.
Even though Wimberley is a township with a population of fewer than 4000 people, Shakespeare Under The Stars at the EmilyAnn Theatre is currently staging a muscular and articulate Julius Caesar that is well worth the winding, forty-five minute drive through ranch country.
Known principally for summer musicals and the long running annual "Shakespeare Under The Stars" for young people, the park and outdoor amphitheatre of the EmilyAnn have served as a community gathering point for the past eleven years. Newly-appointed theatre operations manager Bridget Farias, who directed The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale in previous seasons, has expanded the program by recruiting experienced Shakespeareans from Austin for Caesar’s four-weekend run.
Outdoors in October? That seems entirely plausible during this past summer's drought and record-breaking heat, but rains and relatively cooler weather have moved in since mid-September. Texans aren't used to chill, and many in the audience this past Saturday were wrapped in blankets as the evening temperature sank into the mid-60's. But no one was leaving.
Farias places the action in an indeterminate "now," in which Caesar is besieged by a press corps and Marc Anthony wears camouflage pants while running his race. Cassius sticks an automatic pistol into his waistband but prefers his switchblade.
These are visual changes for the most part. The text is abridged somewhat but rarely altered. For example, Cassius brandishes his automatic pistol in Act 4 during his quarrel with Brutus when he exclaims, "There is my dagger, / And here my naked breast…” Later, Farias omits the business of Brutus seeking someone to hold steady a sword at his suicide, choosing instead the lifting of a pistol, a blackout, and a shot.
Capable women actors play Decius, Lucius and Messala, so an occasional "he" becomes "she" with no loss to the action.
This is no cast of rude mechanicals. Of the sixteen in the cast and the director, twelve have theatre-related fine arts degrees or make their living on the stage. Five have participated in summer theatre workshops in England, most of them with the Royal Shakespeare Company. This shows in their mastery of the text, the timing of their delivery, and in the intensity of this very vigorous production.
As Brutus, Judd Farris is sober and intellectual with emotions under tight control. This is in contrast to his lascivious, prancing Touchstone this past summer and his bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek the year before, both done with Austin's Scottish Rite Theatre. Farris establishes Brutus with the self-awareness and stature of a tragic hero. Opposite him as Cassius, played by Ernesto "Roze" Rosas. Rosas is muscular and animated rather than lean and hungry—a dangerous man in a fight. His quarrel in Act 4 becomes the clash of stiff Anglo intellect and Latino passion—an unexpected Texas insight to the play.
Beyond the Brutus/Cassius core duo, however, one wishes for greater reflection from the principals. D. Heath Thompson's Caesar is an unsmiling public man, apparently with little intuition. The implication of the staging is that his agenda is probably set by the latest polls.
Trey Palmer's Antony dissembles adequately with the conspirators and is effective in his grief over Caesar’s corpse. Palmer shows the audience an early, unholy glee about his immediate intention to undermine the murderers. With the funeral oration, Palmer gathers momentum, plays with our emotions, and thrills the crowd. Both the audience and cast members insinuate among them in the amphitheatre. The rhythm here is terrific—certainly the fruit of a collaboration between Palmer and Farias. Palmer rouses the populace and they storm off with Caesar's body on a bier in a fine climax. But Palmer forfeits many of those chips with the audience with a big grin as he delivers his lines, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt!”
Special mention goes to Daniel Lefave as the "blunt fellow" Casca, the first ordinary conspirator recruited by Cassius. Lefave portrays Casca as a physically awkward publicity hack for Caesar. Casca stumbles, glowers and grimaces; he's ill-dressed and credulous, exactly the sort of follower or fall guy required for such an enterprise.
This production moves fast and far, regularly penetrating the audience space or plunging into the semi-lighted woods on either side of the stage. For example, in Act 5, Cassius dispatches Titinius (Rob Novak) to reconnoiter the battlefront and Novak races up the central aisle of the amphitheatre. Cassius and Pindarus (Dustin Hensley), under pressure and in confusion, scan the distance behind the audience and come to the fatal, erroneous conclusion that Titinius has been overwhelmed.
The EmilyAnn's production sustains the bard and earns considerable credit for the director, cast and supporters. The folk of Wimberley are well-served, considering this is one of two very active theatre companies in the community. Any Austinites not willing to make the drive are missing out.
Julius Caesar runs October 2 – October 24 at The EmilyAnn Theatre and Gardens, 1101 FM 2325, Wimberley, TX 78676. Information can be found at http://www.emilyann.org/.