NEW YORK -- New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joseph Papp's promising start on a six-year marathon performance of all of Shakespeare's 36 plays -- the first such undertaking in American theatrical history -- has stumbled badly in its second production, 'Julius Caesar,' which opened at the Public Theater Tuesday.
Although directed by veteran Shakespearian Stuart Vaughan, this 'Julius Caesar' falls far below the level of excellence set by the imaginative and spirited 'Midsummer Night's Dream' which opened in December to an extended run ending this week. It is a case of a passionate play drained of passion.
An all-star cast including Al Pacino, Martin Sheen, Edward Herrmann and John McMartin cannot rescue this pedantic production from mediocrity, although such calculated casting can guarantee a box office sell-out for the play's run, fortunately limited to two weeks. None of these fine actors can be expected to improve on the shallowness of their characterizations in that short time.
It already is obvious that Papp's all-American casts are not going to provide poetic, high style performances of the Shakespeare canon in the British tradition, but audiences should be offered something better than what could be expected from the drama department of a large university. The marathon's third production, 'Romeo and Juliet' due next month, will provide further evidence of the validity of Papp's ambitious project.
Brutus is the pivotal figure in 'Julius Caesar' and Sheen, a powerful actor as evidenced by his successful film and stage roles, is miscast in the role. He reads his lines so literally and with such a lack of vocal range that he makes Brutus boring, not an easy achievement.
Sheen maintains a deadpan expression in the most dramatic passages and displays an inventory of gestures worthy of a freshman drama student. Small in stature, he is never able to provide Brutus with the necessary larger-than-life dimensions of the most visible conspirator against Caesar's life.
Pacino is able to rally considerable more intensity in his enactment of Marc Antony but he is out of his league in the complex role of the intriguer who turns the tables on Brutus. Instead of giving Antony nobility, he makes him as oily as Iago, a sort of insecure Mafia lieutenant with a Hell's Kitchen accent who has to pump himself up to get through his big scenes.
The actual Iago-like character, Cassius, is played by the towering Hermann as a sort of stick character -- rigid, somewhat callow, peevish and uncomfortable in both toga and armor, with which is he always fussing. He hardly seems the lean and hungry conspirator who would con his loving friend, Brutus, into a course of action that is both foolhardy and fatal.
McMartin plays Caesar in the mode of a modern corporation chairman, blandly dignified, cooly shrewd, and irritatingly rectitudinous. In spite of the shortcomings of this approach to the heroic Roman warrior, he is the most interesting actor in the play, giving a well thought out and subtle characterization of one side of Caesar's personality, the consummate politician.
As Caesar's nephew, Octavius, Robert Curtis-Brown gives signs of a certain authority and dramatic flair that would have been arresting in a more developed role. Harriet Harris as Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Joan MacIntosh as Portia, wife to Brutus, are virtual ciphers in this production, as are most of the rest of the cast with the exception of John Fitzgibbon who doubles as Cinna the poet and Cinna the conspirator.
Portia's suicide, which results in the reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius in one of the play's most touching scenes, barely causes an emotional ripple in the hands of Sheen and Herrmann. Pacino's funeral oration and other highlights of the play are similarly diluted by the pervading dullness of this tedious production, which is not helped by Bob Shaw's set of unclassical brick columns framing a shallow flight of faux marble steps.
Opera composer Lee Hoiby has provided music as an acompaniment for the action which is far more interesting than the action itself, especially in the anemic mob and battle scenes cry out for increased manpower.