Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Blood-Spattered Bard; or, "An Adaptation of Julius Caesar" from Molotov

It's Shakespeare! It's full of beautiful language and symbolism! And, of course, it's a bloodbath!

An Adaptation of Julius Caesar, Molotov Theatre Group's latest good-natured atrocity, may seem like absurd mayhem on the surface, but underneath not only lie its roots in a classic tragedy, but also quite a bit of contemporary commentary, and quite a few solid performances.

Mark Antony, over the body of Julius C.

The surprising thing about it is that it starts off really seeming like fairly authentic, if condensed Shakespeare. We have Julius C. (a very well-cast James Radack, who physically fits the part perfectly; he has a profile that belongs on a Roman coin) ready to turn the Roman republic into a monarchy, with himself at the head. A clutch of conspirators, including Brutus (Brandon Mitchell), Casca (Evan Crump), and Cassius (Genevieve James, in what I would term a "trouser role" if she wasn't in a toga), fear for Rome's future if that happens, or at least say they do. So midway through the first act, we have the famous stabbing, the classic "Et tu, Brute?", and then the famous funeral scene. By now, I was wondering if and when it was going to veer off into Molotov territory, and I let out a little "oh" as Julius Caesar proceeded to rise from his coffin, sporting a set of fangs, and proceeding to bite the neck of Mark Antony (Brian Wahlquist).

Yes, you read that right.

The second act becomes, in a way, "Marcus Brutus: Vampire Hunter" as he struggles to free Rome from the threat posed by Caesar's vampire legion, dodging the advances of Caesar's converted wife Calpurnia (Jennifer Speerstra), and protecting his own wife Portia (Jessica Thorne), to whom Caesar wants to give the Lucy Westenra treatment. And a soothsayer (Angela Kay Pirko) is getting Renfieldized, while Cassius' ambition grows unchecked.

Cassius, Casca, and Peter, the short-lived Christian. That's me, from the back, in the lower right.

While it may sound utterly berserk, it's actually played very straight-faced and with great conviction. Genevieve James' Cassius is a standout as someone who rallies the well-intentioned for personal gain, and takes every opportunity to grab more power for himself. And, honestly, it's easy to forget it's a woman in that role, she vanishes into it so completely. Brian Wahlquist, as Mark Antony and several other roles, was also memorable; the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech that he delivers, which could descend into cliche and parody, is instead enthralling and sincere. James Radack's vampirized Caesar could easily be played for camp, but instead is a man profoundly wronged and consumed by two thirsts, for blood and revenge. Jennifer Speerstra is appropriately vampy as Calpurnia (both before and after), and Jessica Thorne's Portia is believable as the wife who craves the confidence of her husband, but who falls prey to the predations of Caesar. Brandon Mitchell is noble as Brutus, whose tragedy this really is; he's an essentially good and noble person who truly believes he acts for the good of Rome, but who is ultimately destroyed, not only by his decisions but by the company he keeps. Angela Kay Pirko's soothsayer is a wonderful portrait of wisdom mixed with derangement, so appropriate for the role. Evan Crump is solid as conspirator Casca, caught in Cassius' orbit while simultaneously resenting it.

A big plus is the script; Shawn Northrip's work not only keeps the themes of the original Shakespeare work, but also works in observations on the exploitation of religion for political and personal gain, and raising a valid question: are those who declare they act in the name of "freedom" really concerned with everyone's freedom? Or will they be willing to exploit others when it becomes convenient? (All certainly appropriate at this point in history...) Of course, classic themes of the destructive nature of ambition, and how the repercussions of an act of violence can ultimately turn on you, are all there, the sort of essential Bard that shines through. Northrip deserves kudos for that. Occasional riffs from Stoker and assorted Dracula movies are peppered here and there, but do not overwhelm the material (thankfully).

What's a Shakespeare tragedy without a battle?

But Kevin Finkelstein's assured and capable direction makes it happen. Thanks to him, the conviction and sincerity in the performances prevent the show from simply being a camp trifle, and instead make it a legitimate tragedy and lets the message come through. It's quite a high-wire act, and it comes off beautifully. This is remarkable work.

Alex Zavistovich, who I previously dubbed the "Tod Slaughter of the 21st Century," is behind the scenes on this one, doing the fight choreography, makeup, and effects, and there's quite a few effective moments of gore and spurting blood, not to mention a remarkable battle in the second act. Incidental music, that all sounds quite Roman, comes from composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze. And effective lighting is by lighting designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke, who also provided me with the photos in this review, taken on opening night.

Not quite the last act of Hamlet, but close.

If you're in the DC area, or can make it in, this is simply not to be missed. It's a great, funny melding of Shakespeare and a Saturday-night horror show, but with many legitimate things to say, and eye-opening performances. An Adaptation of Julius Caesar is simply not to be missed, no way, no how.

An Adaptation of Julius Caesar is playing 3/15 to 4/7 at the Shop at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave NW, Washington DC. Tickets are $20 a throw and can be ordered here; and you can always go to Molotov themselves for more information.

See 'em before the final curtain call!

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