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Shifting allegiances
Julius Caesar; The Homecoming

There have been nearly as many political manipulators afoot in the Actorsí Shakespeare Projectís inaugural season as there are in Washington. First that bravura orchestrator of murder, Richard III, was the weasel under the cocktail cabinet (as Harold Pinter memorably described the subject of his plays) while York politicos sipped champagne amid the pews of Old South Church. Then in Measure for Measure at the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center, the string-pulling Duke of Vienna pretended to slip off to an undisclosed location but skulked back to town to hold a Bunsen burner beneath the corruption he sees "boil and bubble/íTil it oíerrun the stew." Now the Roman speechmakers, spin doctors, and sword wielders of Julius Caesar raise a drumming and rhetorical clamor at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre (through June 5).

Robert Scanlon, former literary manager of American Repertory Theatre, helms the rehearsal-set production, which begins, as the players mill about conferring and going over their lines, with actor Bobbie Steinbach brandishing a Newsweek, its cover emblazoned with a smug-looking George W. Bush. How apt for a political drama whose enactors specialize in rationalizing the way ends justify means and in manipulating the rabble. For reasons that make less sense, the actor who will play the Soothsayer, among other roles, wears a ruff and would seem to stand in for Shakespeare (who did act in his own plays, albeit some years before this rehearsal would appear to take place). Standing in for Caesar is a bust on a pedestal at one side of the proscenium of a small raised stage that, along with the floor, aisles, and back of the theater, will house the swirling action.

And Julius Caesar is action-driven, as this fast-moving production, rattled through with percussion and dominated by a couple of mentally muscular actors, underlines. No protracted scenes of Hamlet-like rumination here, in a play that foots it quickly from the noblesí plot to murder Caesar for the public good to the on-stage enactment of the bloody ambush in the Senate to Mark Antonyís pulling the oratorical rug out from under Brutus at the funeral to the outbreak of civil war and the defeat of the conspirators by Antony and Octavius Caesar at Philippi.

Thereís precious little hesitation even by rationalist Brutus, who more than the much-punctured Caesar is the playís tragic hero. A brooding, commanding Robert Walsh plays the part against here the chafing, combustible Cassius ó he of the "lean and hungry look" ó of ASP artistic director Benjamin Evett. When these two conspire to save the republic and later quarrel before Philippi, the production is riveting ó though Scanlonís decision to make Brutus almost as explosive as Cassius seems questionable, no matter how compelling the performer. No battle-noble Hotspur, Brutus is meant to be a voice of reason thatís the more frightening when lent to political murder, his fault more self-regard than temper.

But much of Scanlonís intelligent production is hot under the collar, from the deafening storm and the portents that mar the night before the Ides of March to the thunderous sprints on and off stage as the characters prepare for battle. Caesarís execution is played in bloodless slo-mo, the plasma for the murderersí ritual hand washing seeming less to squirt from Caesar than materialize beneath his fallen body. But the fifth-act sword fights, albeit carried out with wooden weapons, are vigorous and convincing. Not so the suggestions of togas over street clothes, which only smack of bedsheets put in service of an amateur production. Here the conspirators capture well enough the furtive quality of their meetings; they hardly need to mask themselves in bits of bedclothes meant to show how actors in rehearsal prepare for full regalia.

Greg Steres is a somewhat surly Caesar, both as dictator and as ghost. But the display of babyish fear, in a scene where wife Calpurnia maternally comforts a Caesar near tears before his fatal trip to the office, is interesting. Jumpy Dorian Christian Baucum, an actor Iíve admired in a couple of contemporary works, captures the shiftiness of "gamesome" Mark Antony but not his star power or his mastery of the crowd, and his diction needs work. Most of the performers play multiple roles; some are better than others, with Marya Lowry a plaintive, dignified Portia and young Khalil Flemming sweet as Brutusís sleep-deprived boy servant, Lucius, padding in with violin to soothe his vision-troubled master before Philippi.

The Soothsayer who cautions Caesar against the Ides of March should have stuck around to warn Teddy about Harold Pinterís The Homecoming: donít go home! Indeed, the cankered bosom of a clan into which prodigal son Teddy introduces enigmatic wife Ruth in Pinterís 1965 work is about as far from Waltonís Mountain as you can get. After four decades of exposure to Pinterism, both real and affected, the play no longer bewilders as it did back when critic John Lahr was moved to assemble a "casebook" of contradictory explications of the play. But it retains its power to provoke and disturb, incite laughter and shock.

The Homecoming is itself a casebook on early Pinter, rife with cool menace, conflicting memory, and family politics turned perversely sexual. And at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Charles Towers, itís receiving a casebook production (through June 5), right down to the requisite, differently calibrated pauses. Some of the accents are a bit in and out, and Bill Clarkeís set design takes a jagged bite out of the festering excrement-colored wall separating the shabby North London parlor from the stair. But for the most part, this controlled and creepy period production captures the jarring mix of repulsion and come-on, linguistic precision and moral ambiguity, tea-cozy naturalism and subconscious rite that has marked the work since its Royal Shakespeare Company debut.

In a neighborhood similar to the Hackney one where Pinter grew up, nasty patriarch Max presides over an aggressive all-male household that includes his ineffectual chauffeur younger brother, Sam, and two of Maxís grown sons, dapper if threatening prostitution entrepreneur Lenny and thick-witted would-be boxer Joey. Into this tense, territorial lair ó where the ghost of dead wife and mother Jessie is variously invoked as a saint or a "slutbitch" ó returns Maxís oldest son, Teddy, a "doctor of philosophy" defected to America, bearing with him his English wife, Ruth, who has not yet met the family. Itís clear that patronizing Teddy and cryptic Ruth are out of synch, but not so jarringly that you expect the playís Dollís HouseĖlike dénouement, in which rather than return with Teddy to America and their sons Ruth opts to stay and become both a professional slut (one who drives a hard bargain with her new management) and surrogate mother to the scabrous family of lost boys.

People have been arguing for 40 years over whether The Homecoming is a feminist assertion of female power, a ritual rite of passage among would-be kingpins, or a heightened and twisted rendering of the power mongering and callousness at the root of family life. Whichever, the play, from its initial exchange between word-wielding Lenny and cane-wielding Max to its final pop-tart-pietà tableau, is adeptly theatrical in its mix of terse poesy and sordid particulars. And its arch mix of formality and vulgarity is as funny as it is frightful. The very articulate Lennyís idea of courtly conversation takes the form of precise, atmospheric anecdotes, complete with talk of yardarms and the brisk bite of the morning air, that end in casual violence against women.

At Merrimack, Mark Zeisler (who 15 years ago was in The Homecoming at the American Repertory Theatre) captures Lennyís cold, calculating insouciance. And Judith Lightfoot Clarke, as the impassive yet unflappable Ruth, the most frequent object of Lennyís urge to chat (or dominate), gives as good as she gets, without any appearance of breaking a thespian sweat. She also brings to her ruminative character a mournfulness thatís most apparent when she describes America: "Itís all rock. And sand. It stretches . . . so far . . . everywhere you look. And thereís lots of insects there." Pause. "And thereís lots of insects there."

For all its bafflements, The Homecoming is not hard to pull off if you have good actors and follow the playwrightís instructions ó which Towers does, meticulously. And heís assembled an excellent company whose first among equals is Philip Pleasants, a tall, bald, cadaverous Max, stringy in old cardigan and cap, who speaks a sort of stentorian cockney and bundles grotesque delight into a guttural cackle. Explosive yet repulsively needy, this old goat seems, even in repose, his "stick" splayed out like a fifth limb, coiled and ready to spring. Blond Allyn Burrows, a visual metaphor for golden-boy Teddy, brings an impassivity to his role thatís almost eerie. Dennis Robertson conveys enough of fussy enabler Samís inner agitation that his disgorging of an ugly secret toward the end does not surprise. And Kyle Fabel, as Joey, the boxer without what it takes, is almost sympathetic in his sexual opportunism and earnest stupidity. When it comes to love and lethalness, though, his character is a welterweight throwing punches in a ring full of Muhammad Alis.

Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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