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Chekhov used to say, I have my own theater, and people assumed he was talking about the Moscow Art Theatre, but then Chekhov would tap his forehead and say, . . . in here.

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April 2002

Moon Theater

On the Aisle

By Shamrock McShane

Political assassination is not a nice way to start your day, believe me. But don't take my word for it; take Shakespeare's. And while 44 BC is not exactly the dawn of man, the events that took place on the Ides of March that year shook the world and are still shaking it.

We don't know what Shakespeare thought of course, the Shakespearean scholar, Sidney Homan, is quick to point out. We do know that Shakespeare's company pulled out of a deal with the Earl of Essex to re-stage Richard II for the opening of the Globe in 1599, for political reasons, and Will whipped up Julius Caesar instead.

My stake in the theater is as a playwright. From each according to his abilities. But I find I can sharpen my tools in a number of ways. One is writing about theater in MOON, which is as free a forum for artistic expression as even Santa Fe Community College, where the art of Pat Payne is granted permission to exist.

Another way is acting in plays that illumine the craft of playwriting. And for that, you can't beat Shakespeare.

When Sid Homan directs Shakespeare, you go for it, if only to snatch up the Shakespearean pearls that he drops in passing. That's the lure, but once inside the production, there is so much more. A universe. The metaphor is particularly apt in the case of Caesar, where the characters of ancient Rome are seemingly set the task of finding their way among the stars.

My perspective is unique. I play Caesar, and though Caesar casts a mighty shadow over the play, truth be told, he doesn't actually do much. Apparently this has long been the case with high-ranking government officials.

At the feast of Lupercal in 44 BC, Caesar was poised to be king of Rome, which ages yet unborn would call King of the World. But even Shakespeare knew, from his little Latin and less Greek, that Caesar was a mess. He was half-deaf, prone to epileptic fits, superstitious, and probably paranoid.

But Caesar had taken out all his rivals, like a Chicago mobster, and he ruled the Roman roost. And that's the way I play him, the Chicago way. What is the Chicago way? "They put one of your guys in the hospital, you put one of their guys in the morgue. That's the Chicago way."

The sense of cataclysm is unmistakable in the Acrosstown Repertory Theater's production of Julius Caesar, with its stark bare stage, its stately blood-red curtains, its steel, its flowing garments and violent movement, its upheavals like labored breathing.

In 1599 the Divine Right of Kings was implicit in virtually every moment of human existence. To kill the king was to breach nature. Unthinkable. So naturally Shakespeare began to think it. The specter of assassination overshadows every king who treads Shakespeare's stage.

In Julius Caesar there is a new paradigm waiting to break through the surface like an earthquake. It is the modern bloody state. And the petty daggers of the Roman conspirators will pale before our lethal weapons.

Sid searches out the meta-dramatic, those moments when the theater turns to itself. In the Globe there was no escaping the theater's self-awareness, with its barren thrust stage revealing the audience to the audience from start to end.

While Caesar hovers ghostlike over the consequences of the Ides of March, the flesh and blood characters of Brutus, Cassius, and Marc Antony wage a bloody war for the hearts and minds of men, meaning us, the people of the world, who would live and learn in these so much bloodier times.

Cassius seduces Brutus into killing Caesar. But no one can be seduced against his will. Brutus is predisposed to murder, despite being the noblest man in Rome, and Cassius is sly enough to recognize it.

For William Eyerly who plays Brutus, nobility shows itself in openness and honesty, gentleness and kindness. From Caesar's point of view, these might be just the admirable qualities one might look for in one's killer.

Brutus would make of the assassination a holy act, a cleansing of the state. He's a stoic at odds with Eyerly's natural effusiveness, so that the actor bends his will to the character's, and on stage the tension itself is subtext. You see a fully dimensional Brutus.

But for Bill and me, it's just a way of tightening a noose, of fortifying a plot that is already a cinch, and the suffocating niceness of Shakespeare's skill and craft overwhelms the audience, so that his supreme poetry can transport them. To another universe.

The dynamic of the drama insists that Brutus have a very good reason for killing Caesar, so I try to give him all the reasons I can. Shakespeare makes his case against assassination a compelling one because Brutus is the tragic hero and killing Caesar is his tragic mistake.

I try with my Caesar to present a clear-cut case of tyrant in training, which, ironically, makes the assassination arguments even more conflicted. As lovers of democracy, we would have a dictator deposed by an informed electorate, not the knives of conspirators. But how informed are we likely to get, living us we do under the most corrupt government in the history of the world?

Brutus decides to crush Caesar like a serpent's egg, with logic not unlike the domino theory that supported our invasion of Vietnam.

As Hugh Richmond, another Shakespeare scholar, points out, "Shakespeare's intent would appear to be to suggest not the validity of Brutus' political diagnosis that violence was called for, but the far deeper truth that well-meant violence, even in acute political crisis, only inflames the crisis further."

Damien Smith plays Cassius with a chip on his shoulder, challenging the audience as much as his co-conspirators. It's a ballsy way of acting that I appreciate, and it makes my moments on stage with Damien a rush.

Damien and I get this corrosive hatred flowing back and forth between Cassius and Caesar. There's nothing philosophical about it. It's personal.

Phil Yeager and Rick Mach have choreographed the violence to allow for both sword play and viciousness, so that Cassius and Brutus and their henchmen pounce upon Caesar like a pack of wild dogs.

Brutus may be the noblest Roman of them all, but what of it? They're all a bunch of assholes, except for the women. Is that an insight into history, ladies, or what?

Gender hovers over the play as hauntingly as does Caesar's ghost, and Sid Homan is brave and thoughtful enough to flesh it out, to make corporeal the most spiritual of Shakespeare's leanings, the notion of a world soul that is motherly. Maybe Shakespeare was a woman.

In this production Marc Antony is a woman, the lovely and talented Catherine Tosenberger, who breathtakingly shapes her character from coquette to conqueror. "I purposely cast a woman as Antony," says Sid "to reflect not only a policy of gender-free casting, but to set Antony apart from everyone else."

Women, it goes without saying, are set apart anyway. Shakespeare has the mind and the poetry to say it. Portia and Calpurnia, the wives of Brutus and Caesar, are wiser than both their men, see deeper into the heart of things. As portrayed by Kelly Dugan and Anarosa Garcia, they are a luminous mirror-image of woman, prescient, nurturing, vulnerable, tragic.

Shakespeare's first tragedy, Julius Caesar, runs through April 20 at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater.