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Julius Caesar is best when we don't push the modern parallels

Wednesday, Jun 11 2003
Last weekend the writer Mark Hertsgaard came to the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater for a post-show discussion on what Julius Caesar and current American politics might have in common. I didn't go, but putting Caesar on this month certainly raises the question, and having Hertsgaard over proves that director Jonathan Moscone selected the play with foreign policy in mind. To me, though, the best thing about watching Caesar today is that it makes our national leaders look so small. In spite of a lot of noble words from Shakespeare's conspiring Romans about "freedom" as a reason to spill Caesar's blood, the tragedy doesn't map all that well onto current events, and trying to draw parallels will only remind you that our president (for example) is no Caesar, no Mark Antony, no Brutus.

Moscone doesn't push the parallels, I'm happy to report. In broad, fuzzy terms it's clear why he has put on Caesar now, as the opening show in the California Shakespeare Festival's summer lineup. The play is about senators who assassinate Caesar to free Rome from his "tyranny," and plunge a stable, palmy empire into years of civil war. Questions of power and empire, liberty and dictatorship, ambition and loyalty are all solid concerns to raise right now, especially in Shakespeare's eloquent words, but the play works better as food for thought than as a mythic allegory.

Moscone gives us a puffed-up, half-modern Caesar. A huge gray backdrop with an aerial view of ancient Rome blocks the normally open vista of grassy hills behind the Bruns. Superimposed on the black-and-white city are the letters C-A-E-S-A-R and a gigantic profile of L. Peter Callender, who plays the emperor. A stark, modern scaffolding on the right provides a staircase for climbing to and from a pulpit at the top of this backdrop. Caesar appears in purple robes, waving to crowds and smiling for popping flashbulbs. His bodyguards wear sunglasses and little earphones, like doormen at a dance club, and senators wear gray robes with modern clothes underneath. Later, during the civil war, everyone wears green American camouflage.

John Coyne's set and Katherine Roth's costumes are effective but not original; this Caesar looks like most contemporary versions of the play. In fact, Mark Antony looks downright silly in his first-act costume -- like a gladiator stuffed into a leather camisole -- but in Acts 2 and 3, Andy Murray wears a sober brown toga that seems more appropriate for Antony's subtle, eloquent speeches (which Murray performs powerfully). Dan Hiatt plays Casca, one of the conspirators, in a crass, rude voice to match his "blunt" nature, and Nancy Carlin is a sensitive Portia (Brutus' wife), who helps build tension before the assassination with a passionate speech. Gerald Hiken is hilarious, as usual, as Cicero and the half-sane Soothsayer.

But it's the central characters who hold the play together. Callender is a noble, even-handed, and sometimes pompous Caesar, tender with his wife Calpurnia (Domenique Lozano) but commanding with his rivals. "I am constant as the Northern Star," he says, explaining why he won't change his mind about a certain prisoner. "The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. ... There's but one in all doth hold his place." We see some of Caesar's humility as well as some of the "ambition" that his enemies hate. And James Carpenter, as the main conspirator Cassius, is a weird but compelling mixture of ambitious Roman senator and modern bureaucrat, walking around in a gray robe and squarish glasses, with a wristwatch and a briefcase. He looks, in fact, like George Bush père in his CIA days -- watchful, mistrustful, unaware of the difference between himself and greater men.

All the actors overact sometimes; even the stolid Carpenter tries to gin up more emotion than necessary in slack scenes outside the thrilling heart of the play, the day of Caesar's assassination (which needs showy acting and is beautifully done). The exception to this rule is Charles Shaw Robinson, who does nice, understated work all the way through as Brutus. If he wasn't in command of his lines on opening night, he's improved now, and he makes Brutus brooding and troubled, even intense and charismatic; his love for both Caesar and Portia is obvious, and so is his muted, Stoic grief when they die. Moscone makes the sometimes tedious war scenes at the end a decent drama by focusing on Brutus' troubled conscience.

What doesn't come out, in the end, is the sort of grand, coherent critique that Shakespeare worked into the play. "Brutus and Cassius are Shakespeare's criticism of the ideal of detachment," wrote W.H. Auden -- a criticism of high professionalism, detached from human feeling, that could lead a great man like Brutus to kill a great leader like Caesar for the greater good of Rome. You might say that that sort of coldblooded detachment, exercised by certain men in Washington, led to the Iraq war and brought the United States one step closer to world domination and empire. Maybe so. But that would equate Saddam with Caesar, which is an obscenity. (And Paul Wolfowitz or Bush Jr. with Brutus, which is goofy.) It's much better to leave those parallels alone. But then you'd have just a pretty good version of Caesar, sometimes overacted, offering its crumbs of wisdom to a world that might have baffled Shakespeare.


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