The annual summer theater in the park season got underway with a bloody bang June 22, 23 and 24 with a bruising, angry rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Mudlark’s Michael Miro and Andrew Biliter coaxed stellar performances from the production’s school-age actors.
Despite threatening weather on June 22, crowds filled the outdoor stage area, and the following day, more than 150 viewers spilled down the Ridgeville Park hill to the basketball courts.
Highlighted by last year’s much publi-cized New York production of “Julius Caesar,” the Age of Trump makes this play resonate with audiences.
Mudlark’s production focused less on the pomp and power grab of the play’s namesake – portrayed in bombastic and comic style by Mudlark veteran Sam Bailey – and instead highlighted the anger and ultimate malleability of the Roman citizens who, with a nudge, are swayed from celebration to murderous rage.
Sam shines as Caesar. He has grown during his years at Mudlark, and now commands the stage every time he steps forward. The audience believes he has the charisma to be offered the crown and the arrogance to turn it down, seemingly waiting for a better deal.
We believe he would first listen to the sound advice of his loyal wife, played with earnest zeal by Mudlark veteran Gracie Bower, but his ego pushes him from the safety of his home to his death.
But Caesar is almost a bit character in his own play. The heavy lifting here comes early on from Brutus, who struggles with so much power concentrated on one man. Played by Sophie Noyes, also a Mudlark veteran, Brutus drives the action and is the linchpin around which the others spin, including the Roman citizens themselves. Sophie is up to the task, thoughtful and fair even as Brutus gets swallowed up by the rage engulfing and surrounding everyone else.
Anger drives everything here – and the personification of anger is Cassius, played by Cynder Turley. She captures the nasty, brutal, unrelenting and irrational anger of both the conspirators and ultimately the citizens themselves. Her delivery drips with rage, bitterness and jealousy. It seems almost too angry, but then, we realize that is the point.
Irrational anger can backfire. When Cassius and others successfully recruit Brutus, and Caesar is assassinated for his “ambition,” the stage is set for the rise of the next influencer.
Enter Mark Antony, played here by the brilliant Marta Bady. With the most famous passage in Julius Caesar, Antony’s funeral speech, the Romans, the countrymen and the friends on the lawn all lent their ears.
The speech – given by perhaps the most compelling character in the entire play – shifts the other characters into murderous rage again, sealing the fate of Brutus and the others. Marta’s passionate delivery channels the rage to where Antony wanted it to be.
This production brings home lessons of “Julius Caesar”- that rage cannot stay channeled or directed and anger knows no limit. Anger is emotional simplicity we see daily nationally and locally – in public meetings and on social media. Truth is less valued than anger; and crowdthink is what matters.
In the play, the angry mob encounters Cinna, and shouts, “Tear him to pieces! He’s a conspirator.” The beleaguered Cinna, who indeed shares a name with one of the conspirators, pleads, “I am Cinna the poet! I am Cinna the poet!”
“Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses,” the crowd shouts.
“I am not Cinna the conspirator!” cries the poet as he is being beaten.
“It is no matter, his name’s Cinna. Pluck but his name out of his heart and turn him going,” the crowd responds. “Tear him! Tear him!”
In the end, many are dead and the crowd fades away. But anger still lingers, and we are left to wonder what just happened, how did it start, what was the goal, and why did we end up here. What did anyone gain from all the anger – and what will be coming next?
Mudlark Theater, an Evanston gem, continues to deliver thoughtful, professional theater performed by school kids obviously well on their way.
Evanston’s theater in the park season continues with Shakespeare on the Ridge, Part II – the Arc Theater’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” runs July 21-Aug. 12. Muse of Fire’s “Richard III” runs Aug. 11- Sept. 2 in Ingraham Park for most performances, but indoors at the Evanston Public Library Aug. 24 and 25.