F riends, New Haveners, countrymen! Lend me your ears! Hie thee to Edgerton Park sometime during the next week and a half for a visit with the Bard.
The Elm Shakespeare Company is in the midst of its 18th season playing under the stars. Unlike our neighbors to the south in New York City, who must win the lottery—literally—to see the Shakespeare show in Central Park, Elm Shakespeare invites you to come, over and over again if you like. It’s free, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put a dollar or ten or twenty (or even a million as Artistic Director James Andreassi likes to quip) in the donation baskets on-site.
This year’s offering is one of William Shakespeare’s most powerful: Julius Caesar. Under the intense delivery by a mostly Actors’ Equity cast, the show I caught was powerful enough to mesmerize the audience, including the canines in attendance, for nearly two intermission-less hours.
Caesar, a determined and devoted general played by Tracy Griswold, has just returned to Rome flush from victory. His fiercely loyal friend Marc Antony (Paul Pryce) has publicly prodded Caesar to assume power over Rome, and three times Caesar refuses. But that only inflames the jealousy and suspicions of a group of senators led by the conniving Cassius (Damian Buzzerio), who is convinced that Caesar is going to take over anyway.
To stop him, Cassius plots Caesar’s assassination, enlisting the aid of the honorable but easily manipulated Brutus (James Andreassi). Joining in the plot are Casca, cast as a female reporter in the capable hands of Paula Plum, who drives the dagger into Caesar first, followed by Cassius, Decius (Robert Boardman), Cinna (Kenneth Murray), Metellus (Colin Lane) and finally Brutus.
Despite the shrill warnings of a soothsayer (Robin Maitland), and by his wife Calpurnia (Andrea Goldman), Caesar goes to the Senate on the Ides of March and meets his doom. Caesar’s immortal dying words to his once dear friend, “Et tu, Brute?” (“Even you, Brutus?”), convey ultimate betrayal and disillusionment (and have been idiomatically immortalized in the hundreds of years since Shakespeare wrote them). It’s left to a persuasive and clever Marc Antony to set in motion the means of enacting revenge against the traitors and conspirators. And that only gets us to the Act 3, Scene 2—that is, the middle of the play.
Co-directed by James Andreassi and Alvin Epstein, the sizable cast and crew range in age and experience from fresh-faced high school students to the legendary Epstein, who is in his mid-eighties.
Dan Fitzmaurice, who will assume the title of Managing Director in the fall, estimates that 30,000 people see Elm Shakespeare’s productions each summer, which tracks with the 1,500 in attendance last Saturday night. Right now, Dan is shadowing Margaret Andreassi, who has held the position since Elm Shakespeare first trod these sacred grounds. “The neat thing I’ve noticed,” Fitzmaurice said, is that, throughout the 105-minute performance, “people are stuck in their seats. It’s so cinematic, with lights and special effects. But if you came expecting togas, you’ll be disappointed. Our actors are clad in suits and modern combat uniforms of a non-descriptive modern day.”
Speaking of modernized characters, Fitzmaurice mused that “it’s brilliant of the co-directors to cast Casca as a woman, and as a reporter similar to a CNN commentator who covers wars and assassinations.” In a play where male characters determine destiny’s course, “Paula Plum takes total charge, endowing her gender with significance, especially when she stabs Caesar first.”
Achieving some of the production’s other echoes of our modern experience didn’t require updating the casting and costuming notes because they were already contained in the source material. James Andreassi sees common chords between the moral stakes of the government’s actions in the play and those playing out in America today: “With the political posturing and vicious infighting in Julius Caesar, one can’t help but be reminded of contemporary Washington. And the notion that this is a ‘global’ war—a world at war—hotspots simmering everywhere. Where assassination is a viable political expedient. Where an event like an arrest or a bombing or an assassination can be the tipping point into chaos… These are the parallels to our daily headlines that make the play timely, potent and relevant.”
Elm Shakespeare Company does more than entertain and provoke in Edgerton Park each summer. For six weeks (up to and including the Edgerton Park performances), students who have been accepted into the organization’s Elm Scholar program, as either “Acting or Technical Theatre Scholars,” undergo intensive training and get a chance to put what they’ve learned to the test as they participate in the summer shows. (The technical kids paint sets designed by Elizabeth Bolster, handle lighting designed by Jamie Burnett and work sound guided by Nathan Roberts.) Elm Shakespeare also offers a “playwrighting residency” program that has students thinking deeply about all aspects of writing and staging a show. It conducts year-round educational programs to teach students about Shakespeare’s magical realms throughout the New Haven School system.
As the Elm Shakespeare Company presents the historical saga of noblemen who kill out of envy and rivalry (except for Brutus, who acts out of misplaced love and idealism), let Shakespeare’s scenes and their most adoring New Haveners envelop you like the fire flies in Edgerton Park—poetic, evocative, luminescent.
Elm Shakespeare Company presents Julius Caesar
Edgerton Park – 75 Cliff St, New Haven (map)
Every night at 8 p.m. through September 1 (weather permitting) except for Monday, August 26.
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Mike Franzman.