If you’ve never seen a play at Theatricum Botanicum, you need to go—period—regardless of what’s playing. The experience of sitting in this outdoor theatre in the serene, leafy woods of Topanga Canyon, watching a classic performed by a dedicated, seasoned company of players who truly know what they’re doing is too good to miss. It’s also one of L.A.’s hidden treasures.
In their current production of Julius Caesar, director (and company Artistic Director) Ellen Geer takes what seems to be a distinctly American approach. It’s brash, accessible and un-starchy. It’s got breath and blood and life in it. These Romans don’t pose and intone; they talk to each other, sometimes overlapping each other’s sentences like real people do. The senators are politicians—glad-handing and backstabbing—and they look like they really live in those robes and sandals.
This is also some of the best ensemble work you’ll see anywhere. The townsfolk and soldiers (played mostly by interns) don’t just stand around silently like movie extras; they break off into private arguments, they erupt, and they have to be quieted, yet even as a mob they seem to be thinking as individuals. Background adlibbing in Shakespeare can be tricky, so ensemble members are often afraid to speak unless they have specified lines. Perhaps they fear (usually with justification) they’ll sound jarringly modern, so you’ll hear one lone fellow yell “We shall hear more of this,” or something, because that’s all Shakespeare wrote. These players are different. They place themselves in the world of the play, and when they adlib (often in the aisle right beside your seat), they continue to sound like Shakespearean characters. One gets the sense that had Shakespeare followed any of their stories, instead of those of Brutus and Marc Antony, they would have been just as compelling.
The principals are good, too. Mike Peebler’s Brutus is quietly conflicted, with a combination of strength, ethics and inner consternation that makes us really concerned for him. Peebler’s is a true and thoughtful performance with just one nagging hiccup: his habitual mid-sentence pausing. Very Shatner: not so Shakespeare. Peebler is at his strongest opposite Susan Angelo’s Portia. The two share such honest chemistry that we wonder if we should be hearing these very personal exchanges. Angelo is the real deal. In her brief stage time, she is complex, passionate, and the embodiment of her line: “I have a man’s mind, but a woman’s might.”
Aaron Hendry’s Marc Antony isn’t the typical, carved out-of-marble “square.” He’s a player and a jock, trailed by the ladies, and even distracted by one at the crucial moment before Caesar’s stabbed. This is a choice that finds justification in Brutus’ description, “...he is given to sports, to wildness, and much company.” Hendry’s delivery of the famous funeral speech is beautifully motivated, intensely interactive with the crowd, and unencumbered by pomp. He is invested in his task, not the sound of his own voice, and he never shies away from the possibility that Antony is both manipulative and ambitious himself.
I can’t quite reconcile the decision to cast the supremely talented Melora Marshall as Cassius. Part of the Theatricum family since the early days, Ms. Marshall is a masterful presence in any role, and as always, her work is fascinating to watch. Her Cassius is charged up like an exposed electrical wire. She’s edgy, bitter and ever ready to draw sword. But, while creative casting is exciting when it works, Marshall’s small stature, delicate features and reedy voice make her gender difficult to ignore. As a result, one focuses more on whether she’s pulling off the illusion than on the story.
Alan Blumenfeld’s Casca is brilliant. Sarcastic, cynical, judicious in his alliances, it’s easy to believe he moves in political circles. He brings a great, dry humor to the role, and the audience is delighted.
But for me, the highlight of the evening is Carl Palmer’s perfectly imperfect Julius Caesar. In his Theatricum debut, Palmer plays Caesar as a man who, having been elevated to godlike status, has started to buy his own hype. Some might say his performance is strikingly reminiscent of a very recent U. S. President. Publically, he plays the powerful, authoritative image. Privately, he’s a boys’ club glad-hander and a bit of a joker, faking a punch at a senator’s gut, then ribbing him for flinching. When he gets serious and puts his foot down, there’s something hollow and watery in his resolve. This Caesar doesn’t quite fill the wreath. It’s a brilliant interpretation.
Shon LeBlanc of Valentino’s Costumes works his usual magic, with work-a-day Romans in earthy shades, senators in red-trimmed white robes, Marc Antony draped in flashy purple, and a thousand brilliant little details, from clasps to trim.
There’s never much manmade scenery at Theatricum. The vast open stage has a few wooden structures that provide doors, stairs, ramps, columns and balconies. These are dressed a little differently for each play. One of the best features of the stage is that it has no back wall, thus the surrounding woods become part of the set. For Caesar, Geer uses this landscape to great effect, adding intriguing peripheral stories to the one onstage. We see citizens scrambling along the hills to get out of the imaginary rain; armies gathering in the distance; Cassius addressing an unseen crowd, and thereby, Rome seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
The delightful fact is, at Theatricum Botanicum, the line between the stage and the rest of the world is often blurred. Before the show, Calpurnia’s maid, in costume but carrying a clipboard and walkie-talkie, gives preshow announcements. The theatre’s entrance gate later becomes the gate to Brutus’ house. I even saw Cinna the poet, between scenes, helping an elderly latecomer to her seat. It all swirls together into one pastoral, soul-edifying experience at the theatre. Go!