A crowd looks on in shock at Marc Antony (Jay Gelter, right) with metaphorical blood on his hands, in a rehearsal for Vermont Theatre Company’s upcoming performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
Jessica Callahan Gelter/Courtesy of Vermont Theatre Company
A crowd looks on in shock at Marc Antony (Jay Gelter, right) with metaphorical blood on his hands, in a rehearsal for Vermont Theatre Company’s upcoming performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Letting the audience make the metaphor

Shakespeare in the Park returns with Vermont Theatre Company’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’

BRATTLEBORO-William Shakespeare's words, stories, characters, and themes can bear meaning in any age; thus, after a five-year hiatus, the Vermont Theatre Company (VTC) is reviving a 30-year tradition of presenting Shakespeare in the Park.

This weekend in Brattleboro's Living Memorial Park, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is offered, chosen by Jessica Callahan Gelter, who's directing the cast of 35, and James "Jay" Gelter, the president of the nonprofit theater company.

"We chose Julius Caesar because in an election year it could be a very tantalizing subject for folks to relate to," Callahan Gelter says.

"Back in 2016, another election year that was divisive and fraught, we put on [Shakespeare's] Coriolanus, a very angry political drama," she continues.

"There were no direct correlations," but its issues of mob control were relevant then, she notes, just as motifs of manipulation and political dynamics in Julius Caesar are relevant now.

So, too, she points out, is the theme: "How far do you go to get your own way?"

According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, "Shakespeare's political thriller tells the story of the conspiracy against Caesar, his assassination, and the defeat of his conspirators."

"We're putting on the show in a non-literal time and place that does not include togas and white marble," Callahan Gelter says.

"To me, it feels sad," she continues, describing "a big element of grief in this show."

"There are all these political machinations, all this death, all this self-harm over a world that's fallen apart," Callahan Gelter says.

Yet, as in every Shakespearean tragedy, in which no one character is absolutely good or evil, there is comic relief offered by the characters Flavius and Marullus, as well as by Casca.

Since 2016, James Gelter adds, a number of big productions have been mounted of Julius Caesar - all set in a modern period and "very on the nose about how the play connects" with contemporary times.

Callahan Gelter explains, "I'm not interested in doing a propaganda piece; I'm interested in the complexity that Shakespeare presents," to which her husband adds: "It's best to let the audiences make the metaphor they want as opposed to spoon-feeding them a metaphor [we] think is good."

Alex Hacker, who plays Cassius, notes that historically Julius Caesar has been presented "as an anti-tyranny, anti-fascism kind of play," especially in light of World War II.

"I had that idea in my head and then getting into the role really changed my mind [...] I see a little bit of that, but really I see how Shakespeare plays all sides: You know there is no real hero in this play, and so it's been really fun to work on the character from that perspective and not just be thinking that I'm an anti-tyrant character who's all good."

Callahan Gelter directed Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2017 for the VTC and Henry V before that in 2012, "and that was a blast!"

Of the current script, she says, "The play is all about how these complex humans give in to and resist big emotions about the challenging world around them. And I want the audience to feel that chasing a dream together, democratically, is not easy or safe, and that violence can't be the path towards that dream."

Callahan Gelter says she finds herself "falling in love with all of these characters and at the same time being like, 'Oh, my god - why are you making this choice right now? You are being so awful.'"

Gelter, who plays Marc Antony in the production, says that, "unlike Hamlet or Coriolanus or any of [Shakespeare's] other tragedies, the name in the title is not the main character, and the story is not just a tale of his downfall but of the downfall of his assassins."

"It is not the story of how one man reaches a tragic end, but of how an entire system of governance does," he says.

Conveying meaning through big actions

Gelter praises the "huge cast filled with amazing talent and delightful personalities. I believe more than half the cast is new to the company."

The cast includes Alex Hacker (Cassius); Alicia Zilske (Trebonius Volumnius); Amanda "Bam" Bamforth (Octavius's servant); Arthur Pettee (Metellus Cimber); Aslan Thompson (Citizen, Soldier); Brendan McGrail (Messala); Casey Parles (Calpurnia); Christian Drake (Caesar); Cyndi Cain Fitzgerald (Titinius); Drift Mayvn (Clitus); Eden Gorst (Lucius); Geof Dolman (Cinna Deciust); Harral Hamilton (Artemidorus); Henry Grobe (Boy); Huxley Dove (Octavius); Ian Bigelow (Cato, Popilius Lena); Jackson Grobe (Cinna the Poet); James Gelter (Marc Antony); Jana Pohle (Pindarus); Jessi McFarland (Claudius Ligarius); Kay Beckett (Brutus); Kira Storm (Casca); Kit Mauriello (Marc Antony's servant); Rebecca Saunders (Soothsayer); Sabrina Smith (Varro); Ailsas (Portia); Shabir Kamal (Publius); Tim Guarente (Lepidus); Tony Grobe (Cicero); and Tosha Tillman (Cobbler).

In addition to Callahan Gelter, crew includes Dawn Grobe (producer/stage manager); Rose Watson (costume coordinator); and Cal Glover-Wessel (sound creator).

"To be able to work closely with folks I've just met, those I've collaborated with for 15 years, and everyone in between is what makes working in community theater a joy," Gelter says.

While there is violence in the play, as well as depictions of murder and suicide, the stage combat arranged by Ian Bigelow "artfully and nonliterally represents" the action, says Callahan Gelter.

"We have no weapons in the show. Zero weapons," the director points out.

In terms of conveying meaning, "the great thing about acting in the park," she says, "is that actors need to take space, use their bodies, make big gestures," not only to fill the park stage but also to convey meaning through action as much as through words.

"In my directing, I try to incorporate that from the beginning - getting people comfortable using their bodies and being expressive in bigger ways than you might see on a smaller stage," Callahan Gelter says.

Callahan Gelter talks of the accessibility of the play: "There's so much in Shakespeare from dirty jokes to clowning around to touching moments and moments of love and romance."

Hacker adds that, since Shakespeare wrote to appeal to all aspects of society, he used everything from lewd jokes aimed at the rabble to high-minded poetics that might go over some heads.

"It's in there and it has to be teased out: I try to vary inflection and tone and put emotion into it that translates," he says.

That way, "even if some of the syntax is super tangled," it can be understood, Hacker points out.

'A space that calls for large, epic stories to be told'

The rotary stage at Living Memorial Park has had some wear and tear over the years, and Gelter credits the Sunrise Rotary Club and the town's Recreation and Parks Department for making many necessary repairs to the stage this year.

"And, for the first time, installing ramps to make it wheelchair accessible," Gelter says.

He says that Brattleboro is "fortunate to have such an asset."

The 40-foot-wide stage with a 16-foot back wall is "a space that calls for large, epic stories to be told," Gelter says.

He notes that when he became president of the company in December, "reviving the Shakespeare in the Park program was priority number one for me."

"Some of my greatest theater memories come from performing on the park stage," says Gelter, who first performed in one when he was 15 years old. "I wanted to make sure that other people in our community would have the chance to create such memories for themselves."

Tickets for performances on June 20-23 are on a sliding scale of $5 to $15. Children under 12 are free. Cash only. For more information, visit vermonttheatrecompany.org.

This Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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