Anya Cullen, Sophia Hyde, & Alex Miguel in Dear Brutus. Photo: J. Tyler Franklin 

Dear Brutus

By J.M. Barrie
Directed by Meg Caudill

A review by Allie Fireel

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Allie Fireel. All rights reserved.

Shakespeare is part of a chain of story and song that stretches back thousands of years. His plays were often responses to or retellings of stories that stretched back as far as Homer, with stops along the way at Monmouth, Ovid, Hesiod, not to mention the other playwrights of the Elizabethan Age, known and unknown, with whom he collaborated and competed, and -not infrequently- ripped off. But that chain of story moves forward as well, beginning just a few years after Shakespeare’s death with playwrights like Nahum Tate’s revisionist* King Lear, right up to James ljames 2022’s Pulitzer Prize winning retelling of Hamlet, Fat Ham

Dear Brutus, one of the offerings of Commonwealth Theatre Center’s 2023 Young American Shakespeare Festival, is a not often seen linked in that chain. Playwright J.M. Barrie’s name is likely more familiar for his ubiquitous Peter Pan in either its original form or one of its ad nauseum iterations, but he was a successful author and playwright, and his interest in magic seeped into other works, including Dear Brutus. The play can serve as a counterpoint to Peter Pan, but more pertinent to its inclusion in The Young American Shakespeare Festival, It serves as a companion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dear Brutus is, at its core, a grown up version Midsummer, which replaces Shakespeare’s young lovers and whimsical antics with brooding middle aged married couples, and acerbic insults that would be more at home in an episode of Downton Abbey. Several married couples and a few singles, are mysteriously invited to a country mansion to spend a week. At Midsummer. Their host is a mysterious little old man. There are rumors of a magic forest. 

CTC is always willing to let their students take on difficult or risky material, and Dear Brutus is both. While the connection to Shakespeare and the play’s placement in the festival might draw some eyes, as may the name J.M. Barrie, this play is a difficult sell. The Middle Aged People Having Regrets genre always threatens to be a dour and joyless experience, and theatre audiences are all too willing to shun anything written over a hundred years ago, unless of course it’s Shakespeare. The drama in Dear Brutus is all slow burn, and the comedy is often delivered in circuitous burns based on the archaic third person singular pronoun “one.” One personally adores such insults, but others sometimes find them off putting.

The eleven person cast landed quite a few jokes in the performance I saw Sunday. Mabel Purdy (Anya Cullen) and her sparring partner Joanna Trout (Sophia Hyde) had the best grasp on nasty backhands, channeling sufficient Mean Girl venom to make me wince and laugh. The ensemble also found some moments of emotional connection. Director Meg Caudill and set designer Gerry Kean provided a moment of true delight I had not expected (No spoilers). But the production struggled to meld its parts into a cohesive whole. There is an understanding that when one goes to see a play produced in an educational environment such as CTC, there will likely be older characters portrayed by younger actors. I am usually capable of engaging the material and the characters despite such mismatches. But I struggled to do so in this production, for several reasons. Dear Brutus doesn’t offer us some older characters, it’s all older characters, and is linked at an intrinsic level to middle aged misery, melancholia, and doubt. This includes every single thread of the plot and nine of the eleven characters. In many ways, the play was focused on how much the characters aren’t teenagers or young lovers. While I instinctively dislike anyone who suggests that younger actors are incapable of portraying older characters, there is an extent to which the actors here just couldn’t summon the bored cruel misery of poorly matched married people who have been unhappy for a long, loooong time.

On a purely technical note, several of the actors seemed intent on reveling in the characters’ agony a little too much. This was a particular problem in the second act scene between the alcoholic Will Dearth (Aidan Garrison) and his daughter Margaret (Madison Janosek). This scene had some problems scriptwise as well, and the result couldn’t help but point out another difficulty caused by the age and youthful physical appearance of the actors. There is magic in this play, and I think some of it is meant to lead to uncanny or uncomfortable moments. But it was often difficult to distinguish if that was the playwright’s intent. Was the scene between the drunk dad and his daughter meant to be creepy, or were the actors too close to the same age to be playing characters whose ages are so far apart? Or was  society just creepily obsessed with controlling young women’s bodies in the early 1900’s? Or maybe all three? The lack of clarity lessened the impact of the scene. 

Regardless, one still applauds CTC’s willingness to try risky material, and it is doubtful that one shall have the opportunity to see Dear Brutus staged anywhere else in Louisville. I found the production to be worth the time I invested in it, but I suspect others may not.

Dear Brutus

May 12, 15, 19  at 7:30 pm
May 15 & 21 @ 2:00 pm

Part of the Young American Shakespeare Festival

Commonwealth Theater Center
1123 Payne Street,
Louisville, KY, 40204

Allie Fireel is a bi-polar non-binary queer, creator, critic, and cultural community organizer working in the greater Louisville area who just earned an MFA in Theatre from the University of Louisville. Their plays have been produced by multiple Louisville based companies including Theatre [502], Looking for Lillith, Finnegan Productions, and The Derby City Playwrights, Suspend Productions, and others. They are also the co-founder and artistic director of the Louisville Fringe Festival, and a member of the 2019 Hadley Creatives co-hort.

As Buster Fireel, they dabble in burlesque, both as a dancer and an MC. As Kerry the Killer Lawrence, they provide commentary and drama for Louisville Championship Arm Wrestling.