Stone Soup Shakespeare sends the fate of “Julius Caesar” to the stars and back

 

brutus

Miquela Cruz, as Brutus, declaims in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar” Saturday at the Shorewood Library. 

 

Their current website epigraph reads: “Men are sometimes masters of their own fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

It’s Cassius speaking, in the great play Julius Caesar, not long before “dear Brutus” colludes with Cassius in assassinating Caesar, the powerful Roman general, just returned from a triumphant war against Pompey. Brutus is also Caesar’s dearest friend.

Chicago-based Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of Julius Caesar showed the “men” in firm control of their theatrical fate, despite swirling winds and a couple of wailing fire trucks trundling past the outdoor setting of the Shorewood Library lawn.

Despite the limits of barebones props and sets, the young troupe conveyed the drama, moral conundrums and tragedy of this story of betrayal, political assassination, and profound self-questioning. It was a deeply moving foray into Shakespeare’s tragedies, from a company which has typically toured the Bard’s comedies and fantasies. So,  for this attendee, it amounted to their most gratifying production to date. And the crowd showed great appreciation at the end. 1

Unlike the comedies, this had minimal madcap motion and slapstick. Accordingly, the company presented the text with greater clarity and impact than previously. The Bard’s drama and poetry shone forth like so many faceted jewels.

julia

Caesar (Julia Stemper) begins to feel the pressure of political unrest, and perhaps a hint of his looming fate, in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar.”

Especially after the dreadful, bloody or heroic deed, Brutus must wonder if the difficult answer about his fateful decision dwells only in the enigmatic glimmer in the sky. Indeed, Brutus’s closest ally in the murder plot, Cassius, is a head-spinner, alternating between such reflective illumination and utter hotheadedness, a contrast well-drawn by Josh Pennington.

cassius

Cassius (left, Josh Pennington) consoles Brutus (Miquela Cruz) who has just lost his closest friend, Julius Caesar, in an assassination they both participated in. 

Regarding Cassius’s epigrammic comment: Does the “fault” lie in their life-snuffing act or in Caesar’s exceedingly “great ambition” to become Rome’s emperor, which compels Brutus to betray Caesar most of all?

Short of assassination, the play resonates today in the dilemma of Donald Trump and fired FBI director James Comey, especially in Trump’s “hope” — or “directive” as Comey sees it —  that he be utterly loyal to Trump, rather than to his nation and the Constitution. Trump’s fate as president may lie in himself, his own “great ambition” and it’s many seemingly self-destructive faults. And like Brutus, Comey is aiming to act for the sake of the nation. A Brutus utterance might be Comey’s: “For I am arm’d so strong with honesty that (threats) pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not.” Comey admits being “stunned” and intimidated by Trump in one-one-one meetings.

And yet Comey did finally speak “honestly” in a manner that may seal Trump’s fate, as surely as Cassius’ fury and Brutus’s decisions seal Caesar’s. Certainly Trump has behaved more like a self-indulgent, impulsive Roman ruler than a democracy’s president and guardian, especially in never admitting any wrongdoing, even about his most demonstrably-false tweets. “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins with remorse from power,” Brutus comments.

A difference is that Comey seems hardly as close to Trump as Brutus is to Caesar, whom Brutus feels a truly great man: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoiced at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but – as he was ambitious, I slew him.”

In the moment before he’s killed, Caesar unwittingly borrows Cassius’s celestial metaphor to aggrandize himself: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” It’s a brilliant Shakespearian flourish of irony.

Once Caesar lies dead, Brutus is ravaged with self-doubt and recrimination. So Shakespeare dramatizes one of the greatest moral and psychological conundrums a human in a certain position of power might face. As Brutus, Miquela Cruz carries the mightiest role burden with grace and equipoise. She does underplay Brutus’s apparent angst. But, unlike Cassius, it’s in Brutus’s character to strive for a certain balance between extreme emotions, which makes his decisions and actions no easier, as the wrenching ending proves. Under Eric Mercado’s direction, Cruz, along with Julia Stemper as a vivid Caesar, showed how well this company pulls off non-gender-specific casting.

choreo

Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of the tragedy “Julius Caesar” was offset by choreography, song, ensemble chanting and drumming, and an audience member as a surprise performer.

It may seem improbable that this small band of 21st century American millennials, juggling roles throughout, might actually reach into the Elizabethan and Roman Empire eras. Yet, aloft in energy and passion, they rode “the tides of time” back, like mythical birds following the constant currents and the northern star, through history’s ceaseless cycles.

sculpture

The sculpture “Congruity” by Narendra Patel overlooks the setting for Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance Saturday of “Julius Caesar.” All Photos by Kevin Lynch

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1 It’s worth noting, despite play’s violence, the company didn’t even resort to stage weaponry. So this managed to be family-friendly fare, as serious as it mostly was. Also, Stone Soup has done staged readings this year of such meaty fare as Richard III and Hamlet, clearly demonstrating their range beyond the comedy that might seem to tour easier to outreach locations they normally pursue.

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