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A 20th-Century 'Julius Caesar'... ...an 18th-Century 'Twelfth Night'

By Caldwell Titcomb

STRATFORD, Conn.--Just about every one of us is vitally affected by politics and the powers attendant upon it. This was true in ancient times and has remained so ever since. To explore the matter for his Elizabethan audiences, Shakespeare drew on Roman history for his Titus Andronicus. Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.

Although Julius Caesar is not the greatest of these plays, it is by far the best known, probably because of the enormous fascination Caesar has exerted over the ages. In medieval and Renaissance times Caesar was the only Roman to be honored with a place among the Nine Worthies; in Michael Hart's new book The 100, which is an all-time ranking of the most influential persons in world history, Caesar comes out No. 65.

This summer the American Shakespeare Theatre is offering Julius Caesar for the fifth time in its history. This time the director, Gerald Freedman, spurred by the work's universal applicability, opted to set the play in our own era, in order, as he said, "to place some mutual perspective on the events of Julius Caesar and on the events of our day."

The attraction of presenting Shakespeare in modern dress dates from the productions of Sir Barry Jackson, starting with his Hamlet of 1925. The earliest modern-dress Caesar apparently was the anti-Fascist one with which Orson Welles, at age 22, inaugurated his Mercury Theatre in 1937 (the previous year he had mounted an all-Negro Macbeth set in the voodoo world of Haiti). In 1939 Henry Cass put the play in Mussolini's Italy. Donald Wolfit, Minos Volanakis, Michael Croft and others have since updated this drama.

Freedman here has not settled on a specific city, but he has chosen to make his Caesar a Latin American caudillo, who enjoys wearing his military uniform with its gold braid and rows of campaign service ribbons. Our century is familiar with such personages: Peron in Argentina, Estrada Cabrera and Ubico in Guatemala, Gomez and Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, Vargas in Brazil, Hernandez Martinez in El Salvador, Ibanez in Chile, Stroessner in Paraguay.

Like Caesar, a number of these Latin leaders met their deaths through assassination: Castillo Armas in Guatemala, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and--within eight years--Carranza, Pancho Villa and Obregon in Mexico. Dictatorship brings with it danger, as today's headlines about Nicaragua's Gen. Somoza Debayle indicate. It is worth recalling that Somoza's father obtained his dictatorial power by assassinating Gen. Sandino, only to be assassinated himself some years later.

I am not prone to enthusiasm about modernized Shakespeare, mainly because it tends to serve gimmick-happy directors without serving the playwright; such was the case with several of the American Shakespeare Theatre's early efforts. But it is possible to throw fresh light on the text through modern-dress productions, as Michael Kahn did here with his Love's Labour's Lost in 1968. Freedman's Caesar takes numerous risks, and for the most part succeeds surprisingly well.

Freedman's concept has been aided by Robin Wagner's settings and Michael J. Cesario's costumes. Wagner, who did the sets for Kahn's 1973 Caesar here, has this time designed a huge three-dimensional grid of steel rods. Walls, glass panels and movable furniture slide in and out as required. The effect suggests a technological society surrounded by steel and glass; the only color is gray.

The costumes reflect today's world. Some of the young citizens carry portable radios. The conspirator Cinna comes in from the rainstorm with a wet umbrella; he carries a businessman's attache case, which when opened turns out to contain knives for the murder (one recalls the old-time gangsters who used to conceal machine guns inside violin cases). The conspirators wear three-piece business suits. The conspiracy is hatched in a cocktail lounge; Artemidorus, the rhetoric teacher, who will try to warn Caesar of the plot, has become a journalist who eavesdrops and takes notes in a reporter's pad. The Soothsayer is a blind man hawking copies of an astrology magazine. Mark Antony, on his first appearance, wears a jogging suit and running shoes. In his domestic scene with his wife, Caesar is attired in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers. Cicero appropriately carries a book, and Casca nervously smokes cigarettes. You get the idea.

Freedman's modernization does not stop here, however. He has turned his production into a multi-media event by employing photographs, film clips and closed-circuit television. From time to time five large screens drop down. On each is projected a different view--now a movie clip, now a still. There are motorcades, massed throngs, and, in the military half of the play, battle scenes and fire-bombings. In the background is a special soundtape collage put together by Mark Dichter, who holds degrees from M.I.T. and Columbia's film department.

This is not the first time that Caesar and cinema have met. Of the roughly 400 silent films adapted from Shakespeare's plays between 1899 and 1929, there are ten versions of Caesar, the first being a French effort of 1907. In the half century since 1929, about 50 sound films have been made, including three of Caesar, all American. The straightforward 1953 version, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz--with James Mason's Brutus, John Gielgud's Cassius. Marlon Brando's Antony, and the late Louis Calhern's Caesar--remains the only excellent Shakespearean film ever done in our country (and few people know that its off-camera crowd roars in the stadium were specially recorded by a huge throng at a baseball game).

And what of Freedman's performers? Once we get through an ill-spoken opening scene and the major characters appear, most of the cast perform admirably. Much of what they have to do here is far from easy, and obviously called for a good deal of meticulous drilling.

Marcus Brutus, the play's longest role, is in the hands of Kenneth Haigh. In 1956 Haigh burst on the scene as the original Angry Young Man in Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Now, in 1979 (the year he turns 47, 49 or 50, depending on what source you credit), Haigh is the Stoic Middle-Aged Man. Clearly at home in Shakespeare's language, Haigh speaks with cool conviction and command, and a feeling for the verse rhythms.

That Brutus keeps misgivings bottled up inside is apparent from the way Haigh rubs his forehead in private as though suffering a headache. It is characteristic of his distaste for panache that, when committed to war, he alone among the commanders wears unadorned fatigues--no ribbons, no insignia of rank.

In the second-longest role of Cassius, Brutus' brother-in-law who originates the murder plot, a bearded Harris Yulin makes his position more plausible and less villainous than we usually see--and perhaps it should be said that there are no thorough villains in this play, except for the gang that lynches a poor poet merely for having the same name as one of the conspirators.

Freedman has given fresh significance to Pindarus--whom Cassius captured, forced into servitude, and finally frees-by assigning the role to a black actor (a forceful Joe Morton). Ray Dooley is sufficiently young-looking for the 21-year-old Octavius, and nicely captures the chill efficiency of this whiz kid with a fourragere on his uniform.

I cannot forever put off mentioning Robert Burr's disappointing Caesar. We are prepared for him by an onstage brass band and drum, but when he at last appears we see a most ordinary man (dressed up, to be sure), lacking all force of personality. By no stretch of the imagination could Cassius say that this Caesar " doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus." In the brief colloquy between Caesar and Decius Brutus, the latter exhibits much more magnetism, as played by James Harper, and I wish the two actors had exchanged roles.

The murder of Caesar is effectively staged indeed. There is no sense of haste; the assassins do their work with plenty of time between knife-stabs. And they carefully roll up their shirt sleeves before going through the ritual of bathing their hands in Caesar's blood, and then--in slow succession again--shaking hands with Mark Antony. (This was a wonderful idea on the author's part, and is not found in the three Plutarch biographies that provided most of Shakespeare's material. The Bard may have taken a hint from Plutarch's sketch of Publicola, which contains a reference to a band of youths who murdered a man, tasted his blood and immersed their hands in his entrails.)

Freedman makes something quite special of the famous funeral scene. He has tried to enroll the audience among the mourning citizenry by deploying a lot of bit players in the balcony and on the sides. This device usually is nothing but an annoying distraction--as it was in the recent execrable Al Pacino Richard III in New York. But Freedman has orchestrated his plebeians so carefully that his gamble pays off.

In addition, Brutus and Antony not only deliver their eulogies before a battery of microphones but also are filmed by an unseen TV camera. So as we watch the two men speak, we simultaneously see them, from a slightly different angle, projected on a screen over their heads--bigger than life, as in a movie newsreel.

Haigh makes the most of Brutus' abstraction-ridden speech. As everyone knows, Antony's demagogy must top this, after Caesar's body is brought out in a closed casket with his bloody military jacket on it instead of a flag. Luckily, James, Naughton is blessed with a rich baritone voice. If he cannot match Brando's electrifying performance in the 1953 film, he is still hugely impressive, shrewdly guaging his manner against the scattered reactions of the crowd and choosing the right moment to throw open the mirror-lidded casket.

Not so shrewd was Freedman's decision to turn Brutus' servant boy Lucius into a grown military orderly. Peter Webster is a good ten years too old, even if he did write his own song and does accompany himself on a mandolin. Brutus is his best self when dealing with a youngster who is a surrogate son. The character of Lucius was entirely Shakespeare's happy inspiration, and having an adult in the role undercuts what ought to be a loving, tender and solicitous father-son relationship--as we saw here between Douglas Watson and young Alan Howard in the 1966 production.

Still, this is a daring show that sustains interest unflaggingly throughout its running-time of two-and-a-half hours. The greatcritic James Agate once wrote of Julius Caesar: "The play's second half is one long anti-climax. Shakespeare left his play in two halves which no company of actors, however skillful can succeed in putting together." Were he alive and here, I think Agate would change his mind.

Playing in repertory with Julius Caesar (and shortly to be joined by The Tempest) is a revival of the production of Twelfth Night, set in the 18th century, that Freedman directed here last season, and about which I wrote at some length in these pages (July 18, 1978).

Ming Cho Lee's grand ballroom and tapestry are as handsome as ever, and John Morri's substantial incidental music and songs stand up beautifully, supported by Graciela Daniele's choregraphy. The four supplementary singers are all back and in good voice.

I still don't like Freedman's decision to fuse Fabian and the clown Feste into one character, and he still has not taught his players to accent the word exquisite on the first syllable. The cross-gartering of Malvolio's yellow stockings is still inadequate, although Freedman and his costumer Jeanne Button had only to descend into the downstairs lounge of this very theatre to see on the wall an illustration of how it should be executed.

Freedman has changed only small details in his staging. But there have been a good many alterations in the casting, often for the better. Jeremy Geidt's toping Toby and Jacqueline Coslow's merry Maria are superior to their 1978 counterparts, and Reno Roop's sappy Sir Andrew is just as funny as his predecessor's. Robert Stattel has been upgraded from Antonio to Duke Orsino, and acquits himself admirably if without the three-dimensionality that Lawrence Guittard gave the role.

Bill Roberts was promoted from a non-descript Lord to the pivotal part of Feste. He sings well indeed, although-unlike Mark Lamos last year--he has to fake his lute-playing. Ellen Tobie is a little less skillful than Lynn Redgrave as the disguised Viola, but Julienne Marie's countess Olivia is a bit more subtle than we had before.

The most striking change--and welcome it is--comes with the spoilsport steward Malvolio. Bob Dishy's portrayal last summer was by far the worst Malvolio I have ever seen, professional or amateur. This time we have Kenneth Haigh, who knows what he's doing. He can wither with a glance, and inflate his importance with a long swagger-stick. And he is wise enough not to protract the Letter Scene beyond endurance. Fine as Haigh is though he has not found as many nucances in the character as Philip Kerr did on this came stage in 1974.

It is possible to mount a Twelfth Night that displays marked sad, bitter, even tragic undercurrents; it is an extraordinarily multivalent script. Freedman has chosen to concentrate on the pleasant and sunny aspects. Although there may be too much sugar-coating for some tastes, there is no denying that Freedman has turned out a smooth, elegant and delicious dessert.

***

The drive to the AST grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and three-quarter hours at legal speeds, via the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 91 and t he Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Out-of-state motorists attending the Theatre can, whatever their license-plate number, obtain gasoline from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays Saturdays and Sundays at the Honeyspot Gulf Station at 245 Honeyspot Road near Exit 31 in Stratford. Performances at 2 and 8 o'clock. There are free facilities for picnickers on the premises.

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