KC Experience: ‘Julius Caesar’ at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival

Lepidus (Bruce Roach), Mark Antony (Matt Schwader), and Octavius (Erik Meixelsperger) in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s 2024 production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Brian Collins

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is performing Julius Caesar in Southmoreland Park Tuesday through Sunday until the end of the month. 

It’s a simple setup in the shady confines of Southmoreland Park: a grassy main drag to grab a bite, then a stage facing the lazy hill where the audience sits.

What’ll strike you first is the enthusiasm. You might make it up that main drag, past the donation table and food vendors, fairly calmly. You might even make it past the stage, a hand-built marvel of wood and love. But soon Team Shakespeare zoom up the stage stairs to beckon you to their stage—a curtain—for their parody of the night’s drama. The year-round youth troupe tells the gathering crowd that they’ll be summarizing and making fun of Julius Caesar just over there, and you better go.

It’s funny, and it’s a big help. The kids stage an abbreviated improvisation of the night’s play, complete with plastic weapons and a rubber chicken. They are committed to their cores, and you’re thankful for the contemporary speech, the explanatory improv, the rubber chicken. They make palatable what you fear may not be: the cartwheeling verse of William Shakespeare. To help you further, a synopsis is provided on an early page of the program. 

As showtime nears, the immersion kicks up a notch. A man in Shakespearean garb calls the winner of a raffle and then reads the night’s rules from a scroll: “Yonder lies the trashcan of my father,” he says, pointing uphill to where you can discard the cardboard that held your crepe. Then Sidonie Garrett, the festival’s executive artistic director, walks out and welcomes you into the “walls of Rome”—and yes, the north half of Southmoreland Park is surrounded by walls of stone. It all gently nudges your imagination awake.

Brutus (Matt Rapport), Caska (Darrington Clark), and Cassius (Jacques Roy) in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s 2024 production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Brian Collins

Then, almost without transition, the show begins. All the elements come together—the walls, the stage, the summaries—and pull you in under a setting sun.

Even with all the spoilers up to that point, it’s the actors in their studied understanding of the Bard’s words that carry the audience along. (And, of course, the impressive costumes designed by Mary Traylor). Their intonations reveal meaning in the lines that many of us didn’t grasp in English class. They help you across the icy street that is Shakespearean English, and soon, you’re gliding. It makes you wonder how actors’ intonations have shifted since 1599 to reach contemporary ears—even since 2004, when the festival last put on Julius Caesar. (And then, as now, the commanding John Rensenhouse played the title role.)

The conspirators and Caesar, played by John Rensenhouse, in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s 2024 production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Brian Collins

Early in the third act, Cassius, embodied by the fiery-eyed Jacques Roy, wonders aloud: “How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” It’s easy to catch: You are in that state, now born, and he speaks in that accent, now known. For a moment Southmoreland Park is joined to Ancient Rome, joined to the playhouses of Shakespeare’s day. The performers’ voices project out over the audience and echo off the Kansas City Art Institute’s painting studios and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, then back to you. And it’s then that you’re not quite in Rome, not England, not even in a park. You’re in an imaginative world where we—the Romans, the Bard, the actors, the audience—can all play.

  • Dates: June 11-30, 2024
  • Times: Gates open at 6 p.m.; Julius Caesar starts at 8 p.m.
  • General admission: Free
  • Reserved seating: $25 Sunday – Thursday; $35 Friday and Saturday
  • Vendors: Ragusa’s Italian Crepe Cafe and Butterfluff Popcorn
  • Tip from the marketing director, Taylor Smith: After 32 years, word-of-mouth is still the festival’s biggest driver of attendance. If you want to miss the big crowds, go earlier in the season. Fridays and Saturdays tend to be busiest.
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