Dallas — Unexpected. This is one way of describing the House Party Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the amphitheater at 508 Park. Sarah Lacy Hamilton has directed what the company describes as “a female dominant cast” in an 80-minute dramatization without intermission, in a location many are not aware exists.
508 Park, one of Dallas’ historical downtown Art Deco buildings, is being repurposed by The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church. In addition to the amphitheater it also manages The Stewpot open art program which provides creative outlets for the homeless. This area servicing the homeless sits within two blocks of city government (City Hall) and in the shadows of towers to banking and commerce. As such this location is perfect for the story of Julius Caesar, his life and murder, and his will which called for the distribution of his wealth to the people.
Audience seating is primarily on the stage (with shell) which in addition to creating a more intimate setting than usual. Hearing the actors was easy which was unexpected for an outdoor performance by actors who are performing without microphones in an urban environment. Claire Carson’s sound design was aided by authentic urban sounds that seemed cued to reinforce certain moments such as the distant police sirens shortly after the murder of Caesar. Occasional conversation from the people outside the amphitheater fit in as crowd sounds from the Romans. The evening of the performance reviewed was a cool 54 degrees. A blustery wind moving against the plastic backdrops created ominous sounds that fit the tenor of the play. Church bells toll marking the Ides of March as the amphitheater stage faces the First Presbyterian Church.
Hamilton cast Sasha Davis as Marcus Brutus, Beth Lipton as Julius Caesar, Reese Arrington as Caius Cassius, Chris McCreary as Marc Antony, and Delaney Sullivan as Casca. The other actors assumed multiple roles: Malik J. Ali (Cinna, Plebeian), Claire Carson (Portia, Servant, Plebeian, Soldier), Alejandra Flores (Calpurnia, Servant), Catie McLain (Lucius, Plebeian), and Dean Wray (Soothsayer, Octavius Caesar).
The most memorable scenes are the pleading by Portia of Brutus (Act 2 Scene 1) and the argument between Brutus and Cassius (Act IV Scene 3).
Carson is wonderful as Portia, a wife begging her husband to share his secret with her. Portia offers Brutus proof of her constancy by showing him the wound where she stabbed her thigh. Davis and Carson firmly establish not only the bond between husband and wife but also the feverishness of Portia’s devotion that is important toward understanding events later in the play.
Arrington’s intensity as Cassius balances the icier resolve of Davis’ Brutus during the argument where Brutus accuses Cassius of being dishonorable. They create an emotional arc in that scene that is palpable.
How does a female embody the qualities anticipated of a ruler such as Julius Caesar? For Lipton as Caesar, poise is swag, the confidence that sits atop valor and proven ability. It is physical and natural. From the moment she enters, it is clear that she is Caesar.
McCreary focuses on the most important facet of Marc Antony in Caesar’s life—his loyalty. He was Caesar’s one true friend and that respect for honor, tradition, protocol and friendship is what rings through in his speech. McCreary plays through Marc Antony’s heart.
The cast executes Dean Wray’s fight choreography with conviction. Hamilton’s staging takes advantage of all entrances and exits available on and off the platform, which gives the audience the sense of being amid the action. Their line deliveries are stylistically more contemporary but true to the text, making the story clear and cutting.
I suppose much could be said about the decision to cast women in key male roles, and it is probably fair to say that an audience will notice, perhaps to distraction for a moment. But the actors become their characters and to the extent that they succeed at that, it doesn’t matter that Caesar and Brutus have curves.
In one of the most unexpected moves, House Party Theatre encourages the taking of photos during the performance with a request to share them through social media with the hashtag #getpolitical. This is a very enthusiastic production of a story that transcends place and
time. And gender.