Rain threatens San Diego on this strangely cool August evening. A group of twelve actors ranging in age from nine to seventeen perform a straightforward Julius Caesar at North Coast Repertory Theatre. These young actors were signed up for this six-week acting class with no prodding, culminating in a three-night production.
Emily North, who plays Calphurnia in this production, is all smiles when asked about her experience. “I loved it.” With her peaches and cream complexion and aqua colored braces she doesn’t find the memorization daunting. After working under Steve Lipinsky's direction in the past (The Hobbit), North is enthusiastic to work with Lipinsky once again.
Lipinsky explains the range of emotions in the play, such as, fear, anger, jealousy and revenge, “All perfect for a children’s summer play.” All jokes aside, Lipinsky serves up an abridged form of Julius Caesar in just a little over an hour that focuses on the language and evokes emotion in the actors, some of whom have never performed in front of an audience.
Aaron Rumley’s sound and subdued lighting design puts emphasis on the acting. Drumming music enhances the stabbings and dark moments, as does other instrumental music complimenting Jan Mah’s clean costume design, true to the period with white robes and a green cloth over the shoulder. Without distraction, it looks as if these child actors are using their own sandals and perhaps their parents’ belts.
Enter Brutus and Cassius, performed by Chris Taylor and Erik Larson. Taylor and Larson have tremendous rapport, even with their characters’ opposing personalities, and they are spot on with diction, phrasing and body language. Taylor is a cool and calm Brutus while Larson’s Cassius is deliberate and persuasive.
Sharing the stage with Taylor and Larson, Hannah Hogan is equally commanding as Casca. With the attitude of a teenager, Hogan props her elbow on Taylor’s shoulder as if she were his buddy or confidante gossiping about how the people love Caesar and how they try to give him the crown three times. Hogan and Larson’s easy tone conjures jealousy in Brutus and adds an uncomfortable air of nonchalance to the coming acts of violence.
Amanda Cowles play’s the role of Brutus’ wife, Portia, and comes across as the worried spouse who suddenly does not understand the actions and motivations of her husband. On her knees, Cowles is sympathetic and sincere and speaks her role from the heart.
At around twelve years old, Jacob Surovsky brings out the pomp of Caesar by smirking or holding a hand up to keep the people at bay. This Caesar belittles the people and even pats Casca on the head, to which Hogan closes her eyes and buries her emotions. In that pivotal scene—the assassination of Caesar—a drum beats after every stab, until Brutus delivers the final blow of betrayal, and in a single yet profound moment, Surovsky looks up and delivers those three famous words, “Et tu Brute?” In this fast paced production, the energy remains high, but moments such as these are jarring and evoke worthy emotion because they are so well executed.
Of note, Dakota Speas had only two weeks to prepare for his role as Mark Antony, as he joined the summer classes later than his counterparts. Speas isn’t seen until late in the play; his big moment occurs after the murder of Caesar. Speas cautiously approaches the lifeless body of Surovsky, apparently fearful of what he sees. On his knees, he furrows his brow and mourns the mighty Caesar before shaking hands with the murderers and swiftly exiting the scene.
The rest of the cast includes Arielle Algaze as Decius; Peter Lillian as Trebonius and Messala; Gabe Krut as Cicero, Servant and Pindarus; Chloe Sherman as the Soothsayer, Flavius and Lucillius; Hannah Green as Murellus and Cinna, and two adult mentors: Matt Thompson as Octavius Caesar, and Sunny Smith as Lucius, Artemidorus, Dardanius and Messenger.
Matt Thompson is North Coast Rep’s Theatre School Director, receiving his M.A. in Theatre from San Diego State University while teaching master classes through the La Jolla Playhouse education department.
Sunny Smith, who helped with props, said it was mulled over whether to use skateboards in this production, but in the end the decision was made to focus less on props and angles and more on Shakespeare’s language. The simple and well-crafted set design by John Finkbinder and Marty Burnett was originally used for the production, Don’t Dress for Dinner, and serves the purpose of creating places to exit and enter on opposing sides of the stage. For Julius Caesar, some gold paint has been added to the walls with a touch of ominous red dripping on the stairs. From the set design to the costumes, this Julius Caesar is a classic production appropriate for all ages.
Smith says none of the children are here because their parents made them go to camp, and as the actors line up for “curtain call,” Chris Taylor chooses to remain in character as the tragically flawed Brutus. These young actors thoroughly enjoy being on the stage and truly follow the lead of their mentor, Matt Thompson, who advises, “Acting from the heart is the most sincere form of performance."
For more information on North Coast Repertory Theatre, their current season and theatre school, visit northcoastrep.org.