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Julius Caesar by Les Gutman

D. McCallum & J. Wright (Photo: Michal Danie)
Contrary to what most of us were taught by our clueless high school English teachers, the real climax of Julius Caesar does not occur in the first scene of the third act when the title character receives his "three and thirty wounds," but rather in the fateful decisions that are made in the first scene of the preceding act. It is there, in Brutus's garden, that the conspirators decide to act, and it is there that the "sober" power of Brutus prevails over the hawkish designs of Cassius: Mark Antony's life is to be spared. Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers.

This scene is the finest in Barry Edelstein's production. At this point, his Cassius (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Brutus (Jamey Sheridan) are divinely matched. Both are in fine control of the language and mettle of their characters. The remaining conspirators shed any independent streaks they might harbor and combine with them as one. It is the logical fulcrum to which everything prior should build, and from which everything else should follow.

But alas, the power of this mighty moment -- and its concomitant ability to engage the audience -- is squandered. The current that should flow from it dissipates, and Edelstein is able to rein in few other moments that coalesce with as much force (indeed, if at all). This Julius Caesar lacks any compelling emotion, despite some very nice acting and a smattering of clever and even thoughtful ideas.

If Edelstein has a clear notion of the story he's trying to tell, it's not evident. The rationale for his directorial choices are difficult to decipher. They sometimes entertain on their own, but they are not building blocks toward any particular vision. Caska [sic] (Richie Coster) is imagined -- to comic effect -- as a prissy, alcoholic Brit. Fine. But to what end? Brutus' conflicting emotions are of course hinted at, but when, early on, they might be illuminated,  theConspirators are asked to divert our attention by cavorting about the dead Caesar as if he were carrion. Why? The audience is dispatched to the intermission with a horrific image to ponder, but it's not an especially important one. 

Once the audience returns from intermission, Edelstein's path becomes even murkier. We are left with little understanding of the intricate relationships of the central characters -- Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony (Jeffrey Wright). We watch events transpire, but with little foundation. The battle scenes are so stylized it takes a healthy imagination to recall they are an expression of violence. It is at cross-purposes with the play, which never gets around to confronting either the moral landscape or the impending disaster. Or much of anything else. 

This lack of purpose seems to be the order of the day. Narelle Sissons's sets -- which I very much liked in the abstract -- seemed for no particular reason to have a split personality: large stone walls, a huge gilded bust of Caesar (impressively modeled after the face of this one -- David McCallum) and an equally oversized sculptured hand give way to cranes and scaffolding that look like the proceeds of a Wooster Group yard sale. But Edelstein's approach has no deconstructionist bent, so we are left, yet again, to wonder why. And once there, Edelstein apparently figures, why not? The audience is fascinated by questions far more intriguing than any that might be raised by the text: how will Mr. Edelstein next put his (no doubt pretty expensive) crane to use? From where will we next see a fierce blast of live flame?

Angela Wendt's costume designs also service this disorder. While the Roman Senators and their spouses appear much as one would expect in a production that makes no substantive effort to reset its time -- not traditional togas, but lots of sashes and the like -- the common folk are clothed in a mishmash of color-coördinated outfits that look like they belong in the window of some Turkish branch of Urban Outfitters. Brutus's servant, Lucius (Wayne Kasserman), on the other hand, wears an outfit that looks like it was brought back from an undocumented Roman expedition to Indonesia. In battle garb, Brutus and Cassius look more like Rommel and a very shaggy-headed Montgomery, while most of the rest of the combatants look like extras from Ben Hur. And let us again ask: why? And to what effect?

The result is not quite as bad as it may sound, but that's because much of the acting is pretty darn good. Mr. McCallum is a convincing Caesar, taking his cues from the text's suggestions of his weakness -- vain bluster in the face of his own uncertainty of the nature and extent of his power, not to mention evident disabilities that impair his effectiveness. He is so weak, in fact, one can't help but wonder if he's attached to Mark Antony's puppet strings. Jeffrey Wright's Mark Antony is full of vigor, and equally impressive, especially in his confrontation with the conspirators and subsequent funeral oration. This is language with which most of us are familiar, but he successfully brands it as his own. (What's not clear is why he's standing behind a metal New York City crowd control barricade for most of it.) Wright's charisma and engaging stage presence hold him in good stead, but even they are not enough to redeem the lack of focus in the play's second half. McCallum is more fortunate: he gets to play dead.

Jamey Sheridan's Brutus is also a revelation -- a matter-of-fact Patton-esque bearing belies its undercurrent. Dennis Boutsikaris starts on the same plane, but becomes less convincing as he starts to come unglued. His own standing seems to mirror that of his character. Among the remaining cast, the most notable standout is the Metellus Cimber of Ezra Knight (who also acquits the role of Pindarus quite well).

A few final notes: Bill Ruyle, positioned just out of the action at the side of the stage, renders John Gromada's brazen percussive symphony fastidiously, and to terrific effect. Don Holder, whose virtuosity as a lighting designer is rarely called into question, lets us down in the great outdoors. Relying heavily on follow spots and a dimly lit stage, he later falls into what seems like the latest bad fad: pointing blinding lights directly at the audience, for some effect I can't quite fathom. And the baths of alternating colors with which he lights the battles scenes makes them all the more silly.

Oh happy day.

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Barry Edelstein

with Dennis Boutsikaris, Nadia Bowers, Dylan Carusona, Ritchie Coster, Keldrik Crowder, Lizzy Davis, Cosmo Fattizzo, Peter Jay Fernandez, Clement Fowler, Richard Frankfather, Judith Hawking, Curt Hostetter, Jason Howard, Wayne Kasserman, Colette Kilroy, Ezra Knight, Neal Lerner, David McCallum, Sean McNall, Holly Natwora, Larry Paulsen, Jonathan Earl Peck, Lloyd C. Porter, Charles Daniel Sandoval, Pablo T. Schreiber, James Shanklin, Christopher Sheller, Jamey Sheridan, Ching Valdes-Aran, Jeffrey Wright and Robert K. Wu
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Angela Wendt
Lighting Design: Don Holder
Sound Design:  Ken Travis
Original Music by John Gromada
Musician: Bill Ruyle
Fight direction: J. Steven White.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of The Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival 
Delacorte Theater in Central Park (enter @81st Street/CPW or 79th/5 Av.)(212) 539-8750 
Opened August 20, 2000 closes September 3, 2000
Les Gutman 8/21/2000 based on a 8/2/2000 performance
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