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BWW Reviews: University of Houston-Downtown's Original Pronunciation JULIUS CAESAR is Interesting Experiment in Language

BWW Reviews: University of Houston-Downtown's Original Pronunciation JULIUS CAESAR is Interesting Experiment in Language
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Inspired by noted linguist David Crystal's YouTube videos about his involvement with helping actors from the Globe Theatre in London do a production of William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET in its original pronunciation, Kate Pogue, lecturer at University of Houston-Downtown (UH-D), former artistic director of the Shakespeare by the Book Festival in Richmond, Texas, and author of four books about Shakespeare, decided to bring an original pronunciation performance to Houston. This summer she and UH-D's O'Kane Theatre are remounting their popular production of JULIUS CAESAR, giving Houston audiences another chance to experience this novel approach to Shakespearean plays.

Inside the program, there is a note sheet that gives audiences a chance to better understand this experiment in language before entering the theater. It explains that in this original pronunciation production that we will hear differences such as the word 'all' rhyming with 'shall' as opposed to 'Paul,' the word 'when' has an audible 'h,' and that for words like 'know' the 'k' at the beginning of the word is pronounced lightly.

Even with this handy guide to some of the changes, the ears of the audience still have to adjust to the new accent once the performance starts. With the earthy, guttural aspects of a Scottish Gaelic accent, in original pronunciation William Shakespeare's words find an audible poetry, which we were always taught existed but never quite understood how. In this original pronunciation production the words become lyrical. This alone makes this challenging and risky endeavor at UH-D well worth seeing.

As director, Kate Pogue has trimmed JULIUS CAESAR to a roughly 80 minute one-act. This choice keeps the integrity of the story while allowing the action to move with an urgent pace. This means that every speech that you remember studying in high school is present and delivered with gusto and tangible emotionality, but much of the plots not directly related to the rise of Mark Antony and the emotional fall of Brutus are excised. In paring the show down, she has crafted a bare-bones approach to JULIUS CAESAR that is capably performed by her cast of seven and is not hard to understand or follow.

In the role of Mark Antony, Luke Fedell shines as the skilled orator and adept politician. Horrified by the conspirators' murder of Caesar, he masterfully manipulates the crowd in his famed speech at Caesar's funeral. As Luke Fedell utters these words, he grips the seated audience by our own hearts and moves us with his passion and anger. Like the Romans, we see everything Rome has lost, and we too want the assassins removed. Luke Fedell colors his Mark Anthony with the grit of a soldier and the nobility of the highborn, making him a dynamic hero that we root for.

As is expected and appreciated, Andrew Maddocks' Brutus is mostly a sympathetic character. Through his orations we understand his motives, which make his actions seem more misguided than heinous. It is Brutus' desires to uphold the banners of patriotism and honor that lead him to murder his dear friend Caesar, as he truly feels that is the best for Rome. After the climatic moment from Shakespeare's third act, these actions take a psychological toll on Brutus, which are mostly brought to light by Andrew Maddocks' portrayal of the character who crumbles under the pressures of guilt and remorse.

As Brutus' friend Cassius, James Pendleton creates a character that is cunning and manipulative. Seeing Brutus' passion for his idealized Rome, he cleverly seizes an opportunity to climb through the ranks and satisfy his own ambitions. James Pendleton's Cassius tightens the screws on Brutus, convincing him to murder Caesar. Once Brutus recognizes these traits, and confronts him about them, Cassius keenly convinces him that they are both being melodramatic and moody and reconciles their differences by offering Brutus the chance to stab Cassius in the chest.

Charles Hutchison's Caesar is highly personable. Through his characterization, we clearly see that Caesar's eight refusals of the crown was his way of ushering in a new ideal of government. Yet, these very actions give his naysayers, the conspirators, all the motive they need to assassinate the man who cares for the people of Rome.

As Casca, a conspirator, Carlo Magana creates a formidable character with ambitions of his own. Richard Christopher Vara does laudable work as Narrator, Merullus, Artemidorus, and Strato. Lindsey Ball is fascinating as Portia, Soothsayer, and Servant.

Performing in the intimate O'Kane Theatre, this production has a black box feel to it. Costuming has the full cast clad in black from head to toe with white accents draped on them to symbolize their positions in Roman government. The choices for Mark Antony include a red headband and Caesar also wears a red drape. Likewise, the set is a series of small black boxes that allow the cast to appear on different levels when necessary.

At Thursday night's opening performance, the cast presented a JULIUS CAESAR that was filled with emotionality. The intentions, desires, and passion of the characters were palpable. However, before taking the production to the Edinburgh Fringe festival this August, they'll want to polish the production some more. There is no doubt that adding the original pronunciation accent to the piece adds stress and hardship to the performances, but the accent didn't always seem to be consistently used. For example, there were moments where Rome, mostly pronounced in a way that rhymes with 'room' was also sometimes pronounced in our modern form that rhymes with 'foam.' Despite these slips, the production holds audiences attention and moves with a surprising quickness. Most importantly, the original pronunciation is not hard to understand or follow; in fact, it brings out the music hidden in Shakespeare's words.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

JULIUS CAESAR, presented in Shakespeare's original pronunciation by UH-D's O'Kane Theatre, runs at the O'Kane Theatre, 1 Main Street, Houston, 77002 now through Sunday, May 4, 2014. Performances are May 2, 3 at 8:00 p.m. and May 4 at 3:00 p.m. Also, feel free to visit their Kickstarter campaign, which is raising money to take the production to this summer's Edinburgh Fringe, page by clicking here.

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