MONTREAL – Thinking of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar still brings back echoes of the Wayne and Shuster skit with Sylvia Lennick wailing, as Calpurnia, “I told him, Julie, don’t go!” But the drama is serious in the Bard’s play classically mounted outdoors by Repercussion Theatre for its 28th annual Shakespeare-in-the-Park tour until Aug. 4. The fact that women take all the male roles doesn’t diminish its power, and the audience is held in thrall through all the political intrigues, the betrayals, the pledges of friendship and even the husband-wife dialogues.
“They haven’t changed the pronouns, and I think people are not going to be too distracted by the fact that it’s women talking to each other,” says Karen Oberer who, since 2009, has held the title of Repercussion’s resident dramaturge. “The word dramaturge means play doctor, but for historical plays, it’s more research-based.”
The title fits her like a toga. Oberer has a PhD in English literature, specifically Shakespeare’s history plays, knowledge she acquired studying at York, McMaster and McGill universities. Though she’s been associated with Repercussion annually, she was instrumental in helping the company amalgamate and blend the King Henry plays for 2014’s offering, and now her expertise has been on call for Caesar’s era. Oberer attended early rehearsals and was immediately on board with director Amanda Kellock’s concept of the all-female cast.
“It came about because last year’s Twelfth Night had only four female roles and 80 women came out for the auditions,” Oberer says. “Also, female characters in Shakespeare often make [disparaging] reference to themselves as women, saying things like, ‘I know I’m only a woman…’ so one of the great things about this play is they don’t have to make excuses for their gender.” Of course, that’s speaking only for the “male” characters because the lines spoken by Caesar’s and Brutus’ wives are still as obsequious.
What’s exciting about the play is how refreshed the text becomes in the light of Kellock’s concept as the director.
“It’s a post-apocalyptic world and men have been mostly eradicated in their wars. What’s interesting is that here, male parts are played by more warrior-like women and those who are called women are softer and less assertive, so the gender binary still exists, as does the struggle for power,” the dramaturge says. She salutes Kellock for emphasizing, at play’s end, that war is still the great decimator, it always was, and changes must be made.
The cast and crew have become comrades in arms to realize the project. Oberer set up learning-management software online for the cast to access, posting articles related to Caesar and Shakespeare and making herself available to answer questions about the times and language.
Costume designer Susana Vera came up with the idea of incorporating the traditional women’s art of knitting (though men are increasingly adopting the pastime) to make armour from plastic bags and bottle caps, the junk surviving the demise of the natural world. Marjolaine Provençal’s set employs rusted-out industrial pipes, platforms and ladders that are the leftovers in an urban wasteland. And assistant director Jessica Abdallah, a capoeira enthusiast, has choreographed battle scenes in the Angolan martial art of capoeira, allowing women to use leverage and kicks rather than strength to fight their opponents.
It all makes for an exciting production, particularly with Leni Parker as Caesar, Deena Aziz as Brutus, Holly Gauthier-Frankel as Portia and Warona Setshwaelo as Casca in the 12-strong cast. “I really enjoy spending time with the actors,” says Oberer, whose day job as student affairs advisor/administrator for the McGill Faculty of Engineering allows her to continue her Shakespeare research on campus.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar sets up in Rembrandt Park in Côte St-Luc on July 27 and Westmount Park July 30 and 31. For a full list of sites, click here.