African American Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is exciting and easy to understand

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Were you bored by Shakespeare in middle school? Is Julius Caesar a painful memory? African American Shakespeare Company has the cure in their current excellent production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece of politics and conspiracy.

Setting the play in a contemporary, if unspecified, African context and speaking the verse with just the suggestion of a lilting African dialect, the company succeeds in clarifying every detail of the intricate relationships among the conspirators and their enemies. Lynne Soffer, the dialect coach for this production, deserves to be noted for her excellent work. By subtly introducing familiar contemporary (if non-English) rhythms to Shakespeare’s blank verse, she eradicates the museum-piece stuffiness that haunts so many Shakespearean productions. Audiences can easily understand every nuance.

It is not the dialect alone that serves the exceptional clarity of this production. The military costumes, suggesting the uniforms of contemporary guerrilla armies and the simple semi-rural setting are excellent. Director Michael Gene Sullivan has taken care to polish the details for clarity, and the company of six actors, playing multiple roles, delivers excellence across the board. The fight choreography, staged with machetes, by Stage Combat Director Durand Garcia is edge-of-your-seat exciting.

With only six actors playing all the parts, this Julius Caesar is not short on theatrical magic. In one particularly effective scene, for example, three actors with flashlights create the illusion of an uncontrolled mob.

Portia (Tristan Cunningham) and Brutus (David Moore) share a moment in the wilds of West Africa in African-American Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar. Photo Credit: L. Peter Callender

David Moore’s conflicted Brutus and Fred Pitts‘ eloquent Mark Anthony are persuasively heroic. (Speaking of eloquent Mark Anthony, I can’t resist hipping you to this bit of deliciousness dear reader.) B. Chico Purdiman‘s conspiring Cassius is alternatively creepy and sympathetic. Tristan Cunningham gives a stand out performance, making much of the small part of Brutus’ dignified and insightful wife, Portia.

In its mission statement, the company states their aim is to “unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience that have been alienated from discovering these time-honored works in a style that reaches, speaks and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.”

Clearly, under the artistic direction of L. Peter Callendar and a talented and committed staff, this company knows how to achieve their goal.

Julius Caesar will continue through April 1. For further information, click here.

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“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Gene Sullivan.

Portia/Ensemble: Tristan Cunningham. Calpurnia/Ensemble: Amy Lizardo. Brutus: David Moore. Julius Caesar: L. Jeffrey Moore. Mark Anthony/Ensemble: Frederick Pitts. Cassius/Ensemble: B. Chico Purdiman.

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