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May 9, 2008

Shakespeare's Best Known Play

Roy Meachum

With no research details at hand, I still believe "Hamlet" is the most frequently staged Shakespearean work; the lead has much to do with my "fact." The tale of the Melancholy Dane is a star vehicle after all. Shakespeare contrived the tragedy in his later years and it abounds with parts various players can get their teeth in, as the saying goes.


This does not seriously put "Hamlet" ahead of every other play from the Avon man's pen. Shakespeare, after all, is an acquired theatrical taste. Many Americans absent themselves from the felicity, as Old Will put it, of madness, intrigue, incest and murder, all wrapped in Elizabethan-era cant.


Tom Hammond as Brutus with (background L to R) Ethan T. Bowen as Trebonius, Scott Parkinson as Cassius and Craig Wallace as Caius Ligarius in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Julius Caesar,” directed by David Muse. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Tom Hammond as Brutus with (background L to R) Ethan T. Bowen as Trebonius, Scott Parkinson as Cassius and Craig Wallace as Caius Ligarius in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Julius Caesar,” directed by David Muse. Photo by Carol Rosegg. 

The last time I looked, "Julius Caesar" appeared in many more text books than the whacked-out Dane. Who can really know what's happening in our schools these days? But, as a single choice to foist off on modern teens, the nod probably still goes to the bloodiest assassination scene in the history of drama.


And who can ignore Marc Antony's "Friends, Romans and Countrymen?" – which contrary to the orator's pronounced intent praised strongly the dead dictator, whose name survived down to our times. Kaiser is Caesar; it is a direct translation into German.


In his newer theatre dedicated to the world's theatrical classics, Michael Kahn has converted "Julius Caesar" into a thoroughly modern production, complete with several stages stacked on each other. My first exposure to this sort of layout came at New York's Washington Square. ANTA built a theatre for "Man of La Mancha" and I was remarkably fascinated by the way the action "happened" in my lap.


At the Shakespeare Theatre Company, opposite the Verizon Centre, the seats are not raked, angled opposite the stage levels. But pretty much the same effect is achieved.


In any event, going on the stage are repertory productions of "Julius Caesar,' Wednesday, and pretty much the same cast in "Antony and Cleopatra." This Friday night I face the thoroughly delightful prospect of seeing Marc Antony and friends, as they get on with life. And without Julius Caesar.


David Muse directed the assassination, maybe the best known Shakespearean oratory and everything else to do with the bloody transition from a republic to a triumvirate on the way to a monarchy that including the likes of Nero and Caligula, and the rise of the Praetorian Guard that really ruled the Caesar, well, most of the time.


American actors have yet to become comfortable shedding and donning new skins night-after-night; repertory is scarcely tried in this country and at Wednesday evening's "Julius Caesar," the audience found out why.


The characters have not yet defined themselves to one another; onlookers are left to fumble trying to define each to each. The stage business – shtikla to the trade – can be uncertain. Actors are looking for their voices.


These are not forbidding qualities in a production this ambitious and inventive; but I mean to make the point that the "Julius Caesar' that you see will bear little resemblance to opening night's. I guarantee. I know because I have gone back later in the run and seen productions' differences with opening night.


Already, I know, there's been some settling. Voices and actions are falling into the places established by David Muse. In any event, he has managed to turn out the most spectacular production of the classic warhorse I've ever seen.


You really don't want to miss the chance to see a play that seemingly everybody knows from a text book. But at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harmon Hall: Caesar, Antony, Brutus and Cassius come to solid flesh, and Washington's much better for it.


But Washington itself is very richer in culture and in civilization because Michael Kahn brought among us this institution that lavishes pleasure, intellectual ferment and first-class drama in our midst.


Bravo! Again.


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