Whenever a theater company opens its doors in Southern California rather than closes them, it's cause for celebration. Griot Theatre Company, a New Group of artists in the West Valley, has taken up residency on the campus of Bethel Encino and is off to a promising start. Offering classics, established plays, and new works, Griot Theatre intends to provide a place where underrepresented artists such as women, artists of color, and those with physical disabilities can interpret theatre in new ways. It is most certainly a mission statement to admire.
JULIUS CAESAR is the company's first production and director Malik B. El-Amin has chosen to conceptualize it by drawing parallels between it and the popular television series Game of Thrones. The result is at times inconsistent but El-Amin may be able to use the concept to draw younger audiences to the theatre and introduce them to Shakespeare in a new way.
References to Game of Thrones are carried out in the physical appearance of several recognizable characters. The most obvious are Mark Antony (Daniel Ball) and Octavius (Erica Peeples in a gender switch as Octavia) now wigged and dressed as the striking Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo. Cassius (played by Cynthia Beckert also in a gender switch) and Jake Suffian as Brutus, while not resembling their counterparts physically, call each other brother and sister and, though not actually related, share erotic kisses that hearken back to the love affair between GOT's Cersei and Jaime Lannister. There is also some similarity between the soon-to-be slain Julius Caesar (Antonio D. Charity) and Winterfell's Ned Stark, though it is in situation alone and not so much drawn from similarities in their bearing. Others may exist but are not as easily distinguishable.
Is it a successful choice? Not always, but that may be in part because not everything about the two stories translates, either in style or intent. In this JULIUS CAESAR, Beckert plays Cassius as an angry Amazonian warrior spitting her words out with venom often greater than the small room can bear, a choice that clashes with the quieter, more reasoned acting style of Suffian's Brutus. Ball is a standout as Mark Antony with a steady performance that resonates honestly as he sizes up what is true and false among the conspirators. His famous speech at Caesar's funeral is delivered from what looks to be the choir alcove above the audience as well-placed ensemble members shout from among the crowd.
Sinan Zafar's sound design effectively establishes an undercurrent of tension, especially during the pre-show with the sound of waves washing up on shore accompanied by a deep steady monotone signaling that all is not as it seems. Kis Knekt's set design and Anna Cecelia Martín's lighting design create a vivid and ominous playing area and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's costumes combine layers and textures that bring the colorful worlds of JULIUS CAESAR and Game of Thrones convincingly together.
One other interesting note about Griot: It looked to me as though the actors were wearing mics during the show but I didn't think I heard the sound of amplified voices. At intermission I asked El-Amin about them and he told me that the theater was hearing looped. I wasn't familiar with the term and he explained that it is one of the ways the company makes productions accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members. Hearing Loop technology allows a person with a hearing aid or a hearing implant to push a button on their device and be able to hear the voices easier. The theater is looped for those with hearing aids with T-coils and Cochlear Implants. El-Amin knows firsthand how it can make a difference as he has had a cochlear implant since 2010. In addition, Griot offers performances with open captioning and ASL interpretation.
Opening a new theater and mounting a first production – Shakespeare no less – is an undertaking that requires unwavering commitment to one's goals, fierce dedication to quality, and an abundance of positive energy to carry you through the bumps in the road. Griot Theatre of the West Valley has a lot to be proud of with its inaugural production. I highly recommend checking them out.
Griot Theatre of the West Valley
Now through November 11
Bethel Encino 17500 Burbank Blvd. Encino, CA 91316.
For tickets call (323) 960-7740 or visit www.griottheatre.org.
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