Updated wardrobe presents a fatal distraction in 'Julius Caesar'

December 10, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Remember the old Certs commercial: "It's two, two, two mints in one"? At Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, director Joe Dowling has mounted the Certs of "Julius Caesar" productions. But in this case, the duality isn't an asset, it's a distraction.

The production is set in an unspecificed modern time, with costumes that initially suggest an Eastern European, or perhaps South American, country on the verge of revolution. Most of the men wear large, double-breasted suits, and, in a nod to the play's classical story, the leaders also wear loosely draped white robes as an outer covering.

In the first half, several of the actors begin to bring interesting shadings to their characterizations, particularly Robert Stattel, whose Brutus is a very reluctant revolutionary. And, Dowling demonstrates a number of slick directorial touches.

For instance, the director makes extravagant use of his large ensemble of "citizens." They flow up and down the aisles and in and out the orchestra exits. In the process, they not only convey the feeling of political rallies, but because they actually stand among us, they make the audience feel a part of these rallies as well.

This works especially well when Cassius and Brutus first discuss conspiring against Caesar. Although Dowling follows convention by mounting the scene on stage in front of us, he imbues it with a sense of back-room maneuvering by moving the populace into the lobby. With the sounds of the celebration of the feast of Lupercal pouring in through the open doors, the audience becomes bystanders who just happen to have turned away from the festivities and overheard Cassius and Brutus' traitorous scheme.

Later, when Mark Anthony -- a shrewd, intense, blue-jeaned Gary Sloan -- sways the masses with his famous, and highly manipulative, funeral oration, the fickleness of the crowd becomes the overriding theme of Dowling's production.

This is, admittedly, one of the play's easier and more overt themes, but it is a valid one. The flaw in the production isn't its simplified textual interpretation, but its schizophrenic visual one.

After intermission, when the action moves to the battlefield at the start of the fourth act, the actors suddenly appear in black leather, with riot-gear-style visored helmets. Designed by Judith Dolan, these military uniforms look like a cross between biker wear and the campy futuristic get-up of low-grade, science-fiction shows of the "Doctor Who" variety.

The look is so misguided and distracting that it completely overtakes any of the first half's attempts at subtlety. When Cassius and Brutus argue, the scene is so bereft of nobility that they look like silly, fighting schoolboys.

And, at the performance I attended, when Philip Goodwin, who appeared especially uncomfortable in this garb, delivered Cassius' portentous line, "This is my birthday," instead of seeming ominous, it drew titters from the audience.

It is a tribute to Stattel's portrayal of Brutus and Sloan's of Anthony that they survive this ignoble costuming with a shred of dignity. But I couldn't help thinking that Ted van Griethuysen, who brings a commanding presence to the role of Caesar, was fortunate that his character died before intermission.

In updating Shakespeare's play, director Dowling is attempting to show that, even today, the removal of a dictator can lead to further unrest, or, as he puts it in the theater's newsletter, "the play . . . examines the consequences of destroying the fabric of a society." However, in destroying the fabric of his own production, Dowling has carried this parallel too far.

"Julius Caesar"

Where: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., most Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., other matinees Dec. 15 at noon, Dec. 22, 23 and 29 at 2 p.m. (No performances Dec. 24 or 25.) Through Jan. 9

Tickets: $12-$45

Call: (202) 393-2700

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