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Lighten Up

Julius Caesar overplays Shakespeare's cynical theme; Connecticut Yankee engages with sweet silliness

The first thing you notice about the California Shakespeare Festival's production of Julius Caesar is the set (by Richard Olmstead) and the contemporary billboard of the conqueror looming above the stage: His head is literally in the clouds as he gazes out over his domain. Judging from the blue of that painted sky, we could be in any tropical Third World dictatorship. Then the crowd attacks the stage, thoroughly debauched and celebrating (we soon learn) Caesar's victory over Pompey in the just-ended civil war. Sunglassed police appear, followed by suited Beltway types who chastise the revelers for their fickle nature: how quickly they turn from the vanquished Pompey, whom they so recently worshiped.

Caesar appears, looking like a U.S. commander in chief in leather bomber jacket and baseball cap. He's a vain buffoon, and the senators (who wear Republican red ties; costumes are by Jack Taggart) look distinctly uncomfortable beside him. The frenzy pumps up even more, and we understand that we're in a cartoon version of America. While I can't say I disagree with director Chris Barton's unrelentingly cynical view of the political process, neither can I say it makes for good theater.

The story's a familiar one, and has been done more in modern dress than not, it seems. Having defeated Pompey in the civil war, Caesar (Joe Vincent) returns to Rome as Dictator for Life. A group of senators, goaded by Cassius (Julian Lopez-Morillas), fear Caesar's ambition, and resolve to kill him. Brutus (Robert Sicular), the senior statesman, accepts responsibility as leader of the rebels. But rather than commit the act furtively, he exhorts his colleagues to kill Caesar "boldly. ... Let's carve him as a dish fit for gods, not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds."

Caesar ignores the warnings of his wife, Calpurnia (Eowyn Mader), about the Ides of March and goes to the senate, where he is duly murdered. By dipping their hands in Caesar's blood and proclaiming their act in a riveting scene -- they carefully roll up the sleeves of their dress shirts first -- the conspirators convince Rome that they have acted to preserve liberty. It is Caesar's lieutenant, Mark Antony (or Marcus Antonius, played here by L. Peter Callender), who upsets their agenda. In the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, Antony turns Caesar's funeral into a rallying point for himself and starts another rebellion. War rages once more, and Brutus and his lot are defeated.

That's the simple version. In Barton's production, though, hysteria is rampant, and nothing is certain except that all of politics is burlesque. Senators who are apparently the worse for alcohol are wearing funny hats. Far from having "a lean and hungry look" as Cassius, Lopez-Morillas seems prissy. Callender's Mark Antony, introduced as a runner who is competing in games on behalf of Caesar, seems a trusty dog. Casca (Michael Santo) comes across like a rumpled Borscht Belt comic. Only Brutus (Robert Sicular) seems thoughtful and senatorial, but when we meet him, his seriousness makes him appear befuddled.

Treachery is everywhere, much of it added by director Barton: Antony wins over the crowd by telling them that Caesar has left every one of them a cash inheritance. They rush away to plot against the traitors, and Antony grins and shows the audience that "the will" is nothing but a piece of blank paper.

Portia (Suzanne Irving), Brutus' wife, manages to sound irritated and irritating as she tries to persuade her husband to confide his obvious worries to her. Far from supplying a much-needed human element, this Portia (who is pregnant) is merely petulant.

As Calpurnia, Eowyn Mader evokes Nancy Reagan as a superficial and superstitious rich housewife. But when Reagan was calling on her now-notorious astrologer, I'll bet Nancy's concern for her husband was perceptible. There is no love whatever between any of these characters, which means that there is very little at stake for any of them. Even when, as in this case, it's all a matter of life and death.

The last straw comes in Mark Antony's final tribute to Brutus, when he says, "This was the noblest Roman of them all." Barton has Callender making a face at the audience even as his speech moves the crowd behind him.

So what's the problem? Isn't it obvious to anyone that our political system is in trouble? Sure. But this is theater. And casting the most cynical possible interpretation on the play's action forces its characters into automatic behavior. Drama -- the heart of which involves making moral choices -- is reduced to a one-dimensional exercise that obliterates Shakespeare's point, which is that morality can appear to change depending on what seems to be the greater good. Rather than weighing that question, in Barton's version of ancient Rome, everyone is jaded, no one has a shred of idealism left, and there is no greater good. Which, unfortunately, makes for a long and tedious evening.

At the opposite end of the cynicism scale is 42nd Street Moon's high-spirited presentation of A Connecticut Yankee, the Rodgers and Hart musical adaptation of Mark Twain's novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Now in its third season, this company appears to have tapped into a theatrical mother lode by virtue of a simple formula: reviving "forgotten" musicals and presenting them as well-rehearsed staged readings.

A silly plot, which is just an excuse to get us to Camelot, begins in 1943 with Martin Barrett (Joseph Lustig) about to marry Fay Morgan (Lesley Hamilton), though his true love is Alice Carter (Stephanie Rhoads). There is a scuffle, Martin is knocked out, and he wakes up on the road to Camelot on June 21, 543.

That's an important date, which he recalls as famous for a solar eclipse. He is captured and nearly burned at the stake until the solar phenomenon -- which he appears to have conjured -- turns him into a master magician in the eyes of King Arthur (Martin Beal) and his simple folk. Arthur's sister, Morgan La Fay (Hamilton again), arrives looking for another husband. She keeps bumping them off, it seems. Naturally, she is after the handsome Martin, but he meets Alisande (Rhoads again), recognizes his own true love, and resolves to marry only her.

It's all great fun, and along the way are several delightful performances (notably Lustig as the hero and Hamilton as the wicked Fay) and some deliciously witty lyrics. Not to mention the music, which features the fabulous "My Heart Stood Still" and "Thou Swell." The actors in this company love what they're doing, and their sheer enjoyment keeps the show buoyant and engaging. Never mind the contrived plot. Just enjoy those songs.

Julius Caesar runs through July 2 at the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda; call (510) 548-9666. A Connecticut Yankee runs through June 25 at the New Conservatory Theater in S.F.; call 861-8972.

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