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Theater Review: Julius Ceasar

Staging Makes "Caesar" Seem Out Of Place

(c) Daily Break

July 8, 1993

IN THE SAME hall where Ronald Reagan once faced Jimmy Carter in a nationally televised debate, Julius Caesar now faces Marcus Brutus and his cohorts. Caesar, yet again, will see the Ides of March come, but not go.

Such a stab as this is Shakespeare at his most political. This opener for the 15th season of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival deserves to be seen because of its commitment to the language of the piece, as well as for a thoughtful and reflective performance by Steven Culp as Brutus. It is difficult, though, to muster much enthusiasm for the steadfastly traditional reading in which even the assassination of Caesar is staged in a rather tame, almost bloodless version.

The only mild surprise is that this is no toga party. "Caesar" has often been staged in different eras - even a modern version with Mafia-style hitmen serving as the conspirators. There's nothing new about the festival's staging, but one might wonder what is the point?

For the most part, costume designer Christine McDowell and director J.H. Bledsoe have chosen to use Elizabethan garb rather than 44 B.C.-style Roman duds. The play's two women, the wives Calpurnia and Portia, are done out in stunning Elizabethan gowns that suggest royalty, or better. The men wear plumes, tights and such - a look that sometimes belies the lines.

Culp, a native of Virginia Beach, tries hard, but sometimes melodramatically, to suggest the soul-searching of "the most noble Roman of them all" - the Brutus who, lone among the conspirators, had sober thoughts about the impending assassination. Culp is a committed and introspective actor who has obviously delved deeply into the psyche of Brutus, the center of any "Julius Caesar" production.

The occasion marks a return to Williamsburg for the William and Mary graduate who has since gone on to guest star in everything from "Murphy Brown" to a notable performance as John Hay in the NBC miniseries "Gore Vidal's Lincoln."

Upcoming on the big screen, he will star in "Friday the 13th, Part 9." More notably, he is appearing in "Fearless," directed by Peter Weir for Warner Bros. His determination to return to his theatrical roots and to take time out from making money to play Shakespeare suggest that he is committed to his craft.

VSF last produced "Julius Caesar" in 1981. This new version preserves the festival's reputation for workmanlike and traditional productions of the Bard's work. The setting, after all, is academia.

Notable in the supporting cast are a brittle, precise performance by Robert A. Goddard III as Casca and Francis J. Gercke as Cassius. Michael Harding is a boyish Marc Antony, trying, perhaps too much, to make the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech sound spontaneous and commonplace. He has been directed to play Antony in a classically pure stance that belies any suggestion of the reckless, wild side of Antony. Lisa Rowland portrays a sympathetic, probing Portia, worried about her husband's nocturnal visitors.

The battle of Philippi is staged in such frantic silhouette that it draws unwanted laughs from the audience.

The set, alas, is the same old set. After over a decade of seeing this same basic unit used for all Shakespearean plays, it grows a bit familiar to the eye, even though Richard H. Palmer's masterful job of lighting does much to disguise the fact.

It was built for a production of "Antony and Cleopatra" in 1972 and was supposedly refurbished in 1978 and redesigned in 1980. Made to simulate the interior facade of an Elizabethan playhouse, possibly the Old Globe itself, it has served well but should now be laid to rest. Ticket buyers have the right to expect an entire staging, not merely a reading in front of the same set.

The festival enters its 15th year on firm financial grounds. A surplus from the 14th season means that all box office receipts from the present season can go toward ensuring that this important summer-theater event will remain a part of Hampton Roads' cultural life.

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