A visionary ‘Julius Caesar’ mesmerizes at Avant Bard

Kathleen Akerley, known for fearlessly bending the time-space continuum in her absurdist-leaning scripts, now applies that imaginative energy to Shakespeare.

Avant Bard’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a mind meld of ideas that take shape in front of your eyes, shift through time and space, and pull messages out of a deconstructed script. In other words, it’s total Kathleen Akerley, the playwright and director known throughout the metro region for her fearlessness in bending the time-space continuum through original, absurdist-leaning scripts. She now applies that same imaginative energy to Shakespeare.

The script that Akerley wrote and directs for Avant Bard’s current production removes Caesar entirely from the stage. He’s alluded to, heard from, and implied, but he never appears as a character. Even the body after Caesar’s stabbing appears as a long silken scarf that drifts to the floor in a bundle. In removing Caesar physically, the play becomes a remarkable construct in reacting to the effect of Caesar.

Emily Sucher, Séamus Miller, Chris Galindo, and Kiana Johnson in ‘Julius Caesar.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

We know the story. Julius Caesar is a triumphant and seemingly beloved ruler of Rome, adored by the public, until he isn’t. A group of his own noblemen are threatened by his rise and start to plot his demise. They effectively turn the tide of popularity against him and assassinate him in broad daylight, at the Senate House.

All of the major characters have their say. Christopher C. Holbert as Brutus exudes a quiet dignity from the very beginning, filled with a powerful brooding reserve just beneath the surface. Lizzi Albert as Cassius has pop-up energy, ready to jump on the latest plot to get the job done. Séamus Miller’s Mark Antony brings a careful gravitas to his scenes, and in playing a host of additional characters, Miller becomes the play’s moral center. Mason Catharini, Chris Galindo, Kiana Johnson, and Emily Sucher round out the talented ensemble cast as characters and soothsayers.

Before the play even opens, video screens play a soundless video of the iconic 1953 film with the greats — Brando, Gielgud, Mason — looping in the background. The play then begins with the characters expressing their concern about Caesar’s increasing power and narcissism. They plot to take a stand “for the people’s welfare.” All of this is with Caesar out of sight, nowhere on the scene (at one point he’s heard indisposed in the bathroom!) Instead, the Citizens are the thing, gathering, yelling accolades, shifting alliances, convincing, conniving, shouting their slogans.

Chris Galindo, Jonathan Del Palmer (onscreen), and Emily Sucher in ‘Julius Caesar.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Suddenly, the action on stage stops and the video screens show three buddies on a couch commenting on the play, offering their own commentary about the issues being portrayed. Actors Dylan Arredondo, Jonathan Del Palmer, and Cassidee Grunwald are young, modern-day roommates watching their own production of Caesar, which happens to be the same production we are watching. But they are able to pause the production at will, talk among themselves, and in a remarkable twist, interject their own spin on events.

With a remote control, they can alter various takes and styles for the actors. When the famous Mark Antony speech about Brutus being “an honorable man” is delivered in character by Séamus Miller, a white male, the roommates reset the casting so that an African American male (Holbert) delivers the speech that then comes across with the fiery cadence of a Baptist preacher. Next, they select “African American woman” and Johnson recites the same words with a no-nonsense regal bearing. The friends wonder why the options are so limited, where is an AAPI offering? Genderqueer? The friends help expand the possibilities with the click of a remote and provide whole new ways of hearing the same text and reconsidering the entire play.

The set design by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden has a publican feel to it, based on a circular base where citizens gather and pontificate. Projections, video, and lighting are as much an integral part of the show as the characters. As video designer, the multitalented Séamus Miller gets special kudos for grafting the roommates’ video seamlessly into the action with reactions and cues switching at lightning speed through various modalities. The same goes for the incredibly facile sound design by Neil McFadden — it’s a multidimensional marvel.

Kiana Johnson in ‘Julius Caesar.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Akerley’s exploration invokes playful inquiry, smashing ancient classic concepts with modern-day technology while pondering the concepts of ambition, power, loyalty, and honor. She asks questions, she provokes, she turns old ideas upside down and makes you reconsider your old positions from different angles and directions. I was mesmerized.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar showed the essence of human nature and existence. Akerley grabs that awareness and brings it all to the surface, to right now, to conceptualize the concepts through our own sensibilities, with memes and emojis on phones and all.

The incredible artistry of Kathleen Akerley is on full display in her Julius Caesar at Avant Bard. From what I’ve seen over the years, concepts and issues take root deep in Akerley’s brain and don’t let go or go away. I’m wondering if the show is like experiencing Julius Caesar on a CBD gummy trip. In this case, though, the issues would stay in your mind when you’re back to your current reality, only slanted and twisted just enough to keep the wonder.

Running Time: Nearly two hours with no intermission

Julius Caesar plays through April 1, 2023, presented by Avant Bard Theatre performing at Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA. General Admission tickets are $40. For tickets and details, visit Avant Bard’s website.

Avant Bard is committed to making theater accessible and affordable. Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, is wheelchair accessible. Additionally, the following performances will feature American Sign Language interpretation:

• Thursday, Mar. 23, 2023, 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Mar. 31, 2023, 7:30 p.m.

Avant Bard offers students, veterans, service members, and their families and caregivers a 50 percent discount on all tickets. All Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. are Pay What You Can, which means patrons can name their ticket price, with no set minimum and no limit on the number of tickets purchased.

The program for Julius Caesar is online here.

COVID Safety: Avant Bard requests that patrons wear face masks for the safety of the performers.

Julius Caesar
Based on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Director and Adaptor: Kathleen Akerley

CAST (In addition to portraying others in group scenes)
Cassius: Lizzi Albert
Cicero: Mason Catharini
Marullus, Lucius: Chris Galindo
Brutus: Christopher C. Holbert
Casca: Kiana Johnson
Antony: Séamus Miller
Flavius, Calpurnia: Emily Sucher
Roommates (video): Dylan Arredondo, Jonathan Del Palmer, Cassidee Grunwald

Production Manager: Alyssa Sanders
Production Stage Manager: Holly Morgan
Lighting Designer: Hailey LaRoe
Video Designer: Séamus Miller
Set Designer: Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden
Sound Designer: Neil McFadden
Props Designer: Liz Long
Costume Designer: Rachael Norberg

Avant Bard to debut dramatic new take on ‘Julius Caesar’ (news story, February 25, 2023)


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