Archive for July, 2009

‘Julius Caesar’ carries plenty of punch in the park

By Colin Dabkowski

Friday night’s weather was perfect for murder. After the latest in a relentless series of rainy evenings forced the cancellation of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s opening performance of “Julius Caesar” on Thursday, fortune smiled on the resilient company and blessed the bloody production with dry skies and a cool breeze.

All the better to witness an engrossing if slightly redacted performance of the play that incites so much fascination among certain American high school students and so many naps among others.

Be assured that there wasn’t a heavy eyelid on Shakespeare Hill as Steve Vaughan’s swift, muscular and confident production strutted its two hours and 15 minutes upon the stage. Vaughan promised audiences a streamlined and forceful production of Shakespeare’s popular tragedy, and on those accounts delivered a rousing success.

Shakespeare’s accounting of the great Roman dictator’s violent assassination and its equally brutal aftermath is rife with lessons that can’t help but seem applicable to the recent political history of this country and embattled regions the world over. The play is packed with hard-learned lessons on the dangers of absolute power, the destructive potential of jealousy and the challenges of preserving one’s rectitude amid base and violent surroundings.

At the center of “Caesar” is not the dictator himself, but Marcus Brutus (Doug Zschiegner), a friend and confidant to the ruler woefully conflicted over how to quash his emperor’s tyrannical ambitions. Brutus, the original frenemy, eventually joins the conspirators, led by the spiteful Cassius (Tim Newell).

After the assassination, Caesar loyalist Marc Antony (Adriano Gatto) lets slip the dogs of war, valiant men drop like flies, and thus the Roman Republic falls in on itself like a house of cards.

As Brutus, a man “with himself at war,” Zschiegner exudes a soft air of confidence, adopting an understanding tone in his heated conversations with Cassius.

Newell, as Cassius, proves yet again why he is the go-to choice to portray Shakespeare’s vengeful and insecure characters. Newell deftly swings between the poles of outrage and tenderness in his exchanges with Zschiegner, at points sounding like a jilted lover longing for comfort.

Dan Walker lives up to his 6 foot 5 stature as Caesar, whom he plays with a delicious blend of braggadocio and affability. As Portia, the lovely Diane DiBernardo glimmers, as do the campy David Bondrow as the devious Decius Brutus and sarcasm-ridden Larry Smith as Casca.

Period costumes by Ken Shaw are excellent, as is the spare set by Ron Schwartz and effective lighting by Christopher Cavanagh. As usual, Tom Makar’s sound design deserves special mention for its borderline-campy use of screeching strings and other horror film-worthy effects during scenes of imminent violence.

Like many directors who fashion Shakespeare’s scripts for mass consumption in the great outdoors, Vaughan cut some exchanges that help tangentially to fill out the background of the production but are largely extraneous to the action.

Such cuts mean the play has gained speed occasionally at the expense of subtlety. But the tradeoff, in a production engineered to pack a pointed emotional and intellectual wallop, is well-justified.


Julius Caesar in the Park

By Anthony Chase

Shakespeare in Delaware Park will open its production of Julius Caesar this weekend – weather permitting. And certainly the chance to see a Shakespearean tragedy in the open air on a fine summer night is one of the great things about Buffalo. A few reminders are always useful: Do arrive early to ensure a good location. Shakespeare in Delaware Park attracts huge crowds and if you arrive too close to show time, you will be forced to sit on the periphery at the back where the people who chat throughout the show tend to sit. Such people are completing undaunted by glares of disapproval, so your best strategy is to set your blanket up early in a prime location. Shakespeare veterans (and you will know them by their Shakespeare in Delaware Park t-shirts) pack a picnic dinner, and watch the play with rapt attention.

Julius Caesar can be one of the most fun tragedies. It contains some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, among them:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (Act III, Scene II).

“But, for my own part, it was Greek to me” (Act I, Scene II).

“A dish fit for the gods” (Act II, Scene I).

“Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war”(Act III, Sc. I).

“Et tu, Brute!” (Act III, Scene I).

“Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Act I, Scene II).

“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”(Act III, Scene II).

“Beware the ides of March”(Act I, Scene II).

“This was the noblest Roman of them all” (Act V, Sc. V).

“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look” (Act I, Scene II).

“As he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him” (Act III, Sc. II).

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once” (Act II, Scene II).

The plot of Julius Caesar is somewhat complex and a reminder of the major turns can be useful.

As the play begins, Caesar has just defeated his archrival, Pompey, in battle, and the population is neglecting their work to celebrate. Caesar enters triumphant with an entourage of his friends and is soon warned by a Soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March,” advice which he dismisses and ignores. The scene introduces Caesar’s key associates: Brutus, who is conflicted and concerned that the people want Caesar to become king; Cassius who is manipulative and notes that Caesar is just a man no better than anyone else and unsuited to rule as king; and Antony. Caesar confides in Antony that he does not trust Cassius.

Casca relates to Brutus and Cassius how, during the celebration, Antony had offered the crown to Caesar three times as the people cheered, but that Caesar refused it. He also describes how Caesar had fallen to the ground in a seizure before the crowd, but even this demonstration of weakness did not diminish the enthusiasm of the plebeians for him. As Brutus leaves, he reveals that Cassius has successfully undermined his confidence in Caesar.

There is storm that night with other bad omens. Cassius plants forged letters in Brutus’ home, ostensibly written by Roman citizens, expressing concern that Caesar has become too powerful. Cassius knows that Brutus will remove Caesar from power if he believes it is the will of the people.

Cassius and his co-conspirators arrive at Brutus’ home. With Brutus taking the lead, the men agree to lure Caesar from his house and murder him. Cassius wants to kill Antony too, Brutus thinks that too many deaths will dishonor them. The conspirators depart. Brutus’s wife, Portia, detecting that something troubles him, pleads with her husband to confide in her, but he refuses.

Caesar prepares to leave home for Senate, as Calpurnia, his wife, worried by nightmares in which she has seen smiling men bathing their hands in his blood urges him to stay. Ultimately, one of the conspirators convinces Caesar that Calpurnia has misinterpreted her dream, and he departs for the Senate in the company of his future killers.

As Caesar proceeds through the streets, the Soothsayer again tries to warn him. The citizen Artemidorus hands him a letter of warning, but Caesar refuses does not o read it. At the Senate, the conspirators encircle Caesar, and one by one, they stab him to death. When Caesar sees Brutus among them – “Et tu, Brute!” he surrenders to his fate and dies.

The remainder of the play involves Antony’s efforts to avenge Caesar’s death. The conspirators all end up dead – though Brutus manages to do so honorably.

Under the direction of Steve Vaughan, this production promises to have wonderful physicality. The production stars stars Dan Walker s Caesar, Adriano Gatto as Antony, Doug Zschiegner as Brutus, Tim Newell as Cassius, Diane DiBernardo as Portia, Cassie Gorniewicz as Calpurnia, Larry Smith as Casca, Katie White as the Soothsayer. Julius Caesar continues thorugh August 16, Tuesdays – Sundays at 7:30 p.m. on Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park, behind the Rose Garden. Admission is free. Call 856-4533 with questions. And do be prepared to make a generous donation at intermission!

Shakespeare’s Work is Filled with the Stuff of Life

By Tom O’Malley

My Shakespeare comes to Buffalo every summer, and he brings his friends along. They are a raucous bunch — from John Falstaff, who carries the whole world somewhere between his belly and his wit, to the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, whose bloody hands just never come clean.

I look forward to my Shakespeare’s annual visit because he touches every corner of this town with his antic wisdom, and those who invest a few hours with him in Delaware Park are sure to come away with more than just an evening’s entertainment. This investment pays dividends in beautiful language, serious humor and rekindled genius that will continue to teach all of us to recognize the limitless potential in the world.

In 1592, my Shakespeare was the toast of London. His plays attracted all sorts of people, from the glorious Queen Elizabeth I to Jimmy the oxcart man who grubbed a living in the cobblestone streets of England. Everyone is welcome in my Shakespeare’s world. When the Globe theater announced a new play by Stratford’s favorite son, it was “must see theater” for citizens of every class.

In 2009, the tradition continues. Pick any summer evening and you are likely to see folks from every spectrum of Western New York society. In 1597 there were, of course, the luxury boxes, where one could sit, wine and dine, and occasionally glance over at the stage and see how the story was unfolding. If you happened to be educated, so much the better. Shakespeare loved to sprinkle his plays with quips from the classics and allusions to tickle even the most erudite in the audience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Groundlings. For two copper pennies they could get into the Globe, enjoy an apple and hurl its core at the stage if the performance wasn’t up to snuff. The Groundlings’ seat was on the ground, thus the appellation. What they may have lacked in education they made up for in their enthusiasm. Sometimes the Groundlings found their reactions an integral part of the play.

What is there in my Shakespeare’s world for modern Groundlings? Plenty. First of all, Shakespeare in Delaware Park is free. In the 400 years since Shakespeare put quill to parchment, the cost of admission has actually gone down! This in itself seems miraculous, but it is true. Of course you will be encouraged to put money in the coffer during intermission, but no one will twist your arm or pick your pocket.

Then there is action. Sword fights and battles abound. Shakespeare did not have access to the electronic wizardry of Lucas and Spielberg. But he did have a direct pipeline to the greatest special effects machine ever invented: the human imagination. In an age that worries about the abuses of power and personal freedoms, “Julius Caesar” speaks directly to us as if it were written last week.

And modern Groundlings will take a special delight in the fatal march of destiny that touches all of the characters in my Shakespeare’s world. “The Tempest” begins in a storm at sea. But we are reminded that such tempests are nothing compared to the tsunamis that reside in the human heart.

In the end, we still need to welcome my Shakespeare today. His plays and poems are filled with the stuff of life: comedy, tragedy and most importantly love. Think about that while sitting on your blanket in the park. Let the music of his language pluck the harp strings of your soul.

My Shakespeare is back in town. Grab a blanket and pull up a piece of the ground. There ain’t a bad seat in the house. And by evening’s end, my Shakespeare will be yours


Caesar for the park

By Colin Dabkowski

If Derek Campbell’s production of “The Tempest” was the brains of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s current season, Steve Vaughan’s “Julius Caesar” is the brawn.

Vaughan, a longtime fight choreographer and frequent director for the company who also teaches at Niagara University, took a scalpel to wide swaths of dialogue, beefed up fight sequences and distilled Shakespeare’s famed tragedy into a swift two hours of what he called “sex, violence and spectacle.”

“I cut all the extraneous things out,” Vaughan said. “Everything that was not directly related to the plot or the story, I cut.”

In his years of directing and fight choreographing for the summer Shakespeare company, Vaughan has developed a reputation for producing no-nonsense shows that hone in on the essential and leave the rest to the audience’s imagination. And that’s especially true with “Caesar,” which Vaughan touts as his favorite Shakespearean script.

Vaughan compared “Caesar” to his directorial project from last summer, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the way one might compare Mozart to Papa Roach.

“ ‘Merry Wives’ was a commission script. Queen Elizabeth said, ‘Write me some more funny things about Falstaff.’ It’s a half-assed play,” said Vaughan, whose tendency not to mince words as a director also applies to newspaper interviews. “ ‘Caesar’ is a play that he wrote because he wanted to, because it was in his soul, it was in his heart. And it’s way better.”

The role of Caesar will be played by SDP veteran Dan Walker, who praised Vaughan’s directorial approach for its economy and strength.

“With Steve directing, it’s a very musical Caesar,” said Walker, a former Marine who at 6 feet, 5 inches, makes a rather muscular Caesar himself. Given his stature and proclivity for roles that require a certain swagger and confidence, Walker was not about to play the great Roman emperor as a cowering old man, as some have opted to do in the past.

“Caesar’s not a dope,” Walker said. “He knows these guys who come to get him aren’t his friends.”

“Caesar” also has the built-in benefit of unmatched familiarity among Shakespeare’s works, popular as the play has been for decades in high school English classrooms across the country. Oft-quoted lines — “Beware the ides of March,” “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” “Et tu, Brute?” and the like — live on in the minds of theatergoers as hallmarks of one of the Bard’s bloodiest and most frequently performed plays.

For Vaughan, the production will succeed only insofar as its audience is willing to use its imagination to color in the world anchored by Shakespeare’s words and the director’s intense fight choreography. He is, for instance, refusing to use stage blood in the play’s most famous sequence.

“I’m going to trust my audience, and you can tell them that,” Vaughan said. “So please don’t expect reality, because reality has nothing to do with theater.”


Shakespeare in Delaware Park Announces Shakesperience Intern Production


Shakesperience, Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s high school intern program, will be holding a performance on Friday, July 10th at 6:15 pm, prior to Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s main stage performance of The Tempest (Rain Date – July 11th). This year’s show is an adapted 40 minute version of Twelfth Night with 7 area High School Students performing.

Shakespearience teacher Kate Loconti states, “This performance of Twelfth Night has truly been a collaborative process. We have rehearsed four days a week for three weeks and have worked together to cut the script, develop the concept and work on the characters. Throughout the process, we have focused on understanding the details of the text, bringing it to life with well-thought out interpretations of the characters, and finding new and exciting moments with the play’s heartfelt and witty story. It has been an entertaining journey to Illyria and back, and we hope you enjoy it.”

The Shakespearience Program is open to area high school students and is designed to provide in-depth theatrical experience with theatre professionals. Each session runs for five weeks, beginning the week prior to regularly schedule professional Shakespeare in Delaware Park performances. In addition to attending classes, students gain hands-on experience in a professional production as part of SDP technical crew.

All performances are free of charge.

Shakespeare in Delaware Park is now in its 34th Season. The Tempest performances are held every evening (except Mondays) at 7:30 p.m. through July 12th. SDP’s second show of the season, Julius Caesar opens July 23rd and runs until August 16th. Shows take place on Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park, next to Hoyt Lake behind the Rose Garden, off Lincoln Parkway near the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.


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