DEATH OF A CHIEF Adapted from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Yvette Nolan and Kennedy C. MacKinnon, with Monique Mojica, Jani Lauzon, Keith Barker, Lorne Cardinal and Michelle St. John. Presented by Native Earth at Buddies (12 Alexander). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 6) and runs to March 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18.50-$25.50, Sunday pwyc. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
Julius Caesar set in a native community? Put your skepticism aside.
Shakespeare’s the best play-wright in the English language not just because of his words; the situations and emotions he presents are powerful and timeless, too.
That’s why directors can set his plays in any imaginable period and place.
You sense the Bard’s power at a rehearsal for Native Earth’s Death Of A Chief, an adaptation of Julius Caesar set in a near-future North American Aboriginal community.
The actors, many of whom haven’t worked with Shakespearean text before, are energized by the power in the language.
Add to that energy the fact that Monique Mojica, one of Canada’s most respected native performers and writers, plays Caesar.
“Our Rome is a kind of Rome, Ontario,” says Mojica, whose gravitas and striking presence add another dimension to her thoughtful reflections. “The play is set 20 minutes from now in an urban Aboriginal community where there’s a balance of male and female powers.”
The production is co-directed by Native Earth’s Yvette Nolan and Kennedy C. MacKinnon, artistic director of Shakespeare Link Canada.
“Yvette thinks this play is just as much about native politics, about the building up and tearing down of leaders again and again,” says MacKinnon, who first worked with the company four years ago when she led a Shakespeare workshop.
“We talk about Shakespeare being universal, but I’m interested in how his work resonates within a specific community. That’s what makes it truly relevant.”
Native performers have had little chance to try out the Bard’s words. Luckily, Mojica did earlier in her career, playing a magical Ariel in The Tempest at Earl Bales Park in the late 80s.
Jani Lauzon, Death Of A Chief’s Antony, created a striking Shylock in Shakespeare in the Rough’s The Merchant Of Venice a few years ago, adding maternal warmth to the traditionally vengeful moneylender.
More recently, in the Dream in High Park’s The Comedy Of Errors, Lauzon had wild fun as the magisterial mother abbess.Despite her experience, Mojica finds it challenging to develop her Caesar.
“This formal way of working on text is foreign to my work as an actor,” she admits. “It requires working from the outside in, and I tend to work from the inside out. Funnily enough, the first thing that came to me about Caesar was the posture, how to hold myself for this character who starts to believe in her own power in an inflated way.”
Expect words other than Shakespeare’s in this production. The plebes, swayed first one way and then another by Brutus and Antony, speak Ojibway, Kuna and Cree, and the native Oracle who takes the place of Shakespeare’s soothsayer is a sacred two-spirited figure.
Similarly, Mojica’s Caesar blends Roman and 21st-century ideas.
“There’s no such thing as an Aboriginal woman today who has the omnipotence of Caesar in Rome. What’s present in our world but not in Caesar’s is the experience of being colonized; his community was the empire, while the community of our setting has been under the boot.”
So how does she create a female Caesar?
“The struggle is not to play a male megalomaniac,” she says, “but rather, an honourable, respectable woman who at some point goes over the brink with her power.”
Both actor and director are clear that this production isn’t about exoticizing the material.
“The show isn’t a concept or gimmick,” says MacKinnon. “I know how hard it’s been for this group of actors to audition for classical companies and be considered for roles.
“After working with them for several years, it’s clear to me that they have the capability and a passion for the material. The performers in this room are as fine as any I’ve worked with. The text belongs to them.”