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Sterling Siblings

The Alley and the Redgraves do each other, and Shakespeare, proud

It's almost a foregone conclusion that Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra would be two of the crown jewels of Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd's seven-year reign. With Corin Redgrave in the title role of the former and Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra in the latter, how could the productions be anything but magisterial? What is now being borne out on the stage commands attention -- not simply for who's up there, but also for how they got up there in the first place and what their very presence suggests.

Despite the Redgraves' being as close to theatrical royalty as you can get, there was a good chance for error in these shows, since the Alley Theatre co-produced them with the Moving Theatre, the London-based company that sister Vanessa and brother Corin created a few years ago. In the mix and match of intercontinental personnel, there could have been clashes over everything from textual interpretations to role assignments to acting styles to technical considerations to business decisions. Egos, not to mention accents, could have gotten in the way. The Alley could have been cowed by the Redgraves; the Moving Theatre could have undergone culture shock. And it might have been too much to ask that the Redgraves not only star in their shows, but also direct them.

But the two companies dovetail their separate strengths so snugly that if I didn't know better, I would swear that they've been working together for years. They haven't; these repertory offerings are the first by the newly formed alliance, though more shows are in store, perhaps a never-produced Tennessee Williams work next season. The Alley and the Moving Theatre round each other out so well that the future surely bodes well for this partnership, and, in turn, for Houston audiences.

It's risk-laden ventures such as this one that bring the Alley to the forefront of American theater. So whether these productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra will go down as the "definitive" interpretations for our generation (neither will) is of secondary importance. What really matters is that the Alley is serving notice about how it plans to flex its artistic muscles. To be sure, the Alley, under Boyd, has occasionally stretched itself before, but never with so many thrilling implications.

The Redgrave-Alley connection began a few seasons ago when Lynn Redgrave (Corin and Vanessa's younger sister) charmed her way through her entertaining one-woman autobiographical show, Shakespeare for My Father, in which she portrayed not only herself and the likes of Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier and sundry Shakespearean characters, but also the "characters" who are her family, present Houston company included. The imported production was rewarding enough that there was talk of Lynn returning. In the meanwhile, Corin and Vanessa take up where Lynn left off.

As has been widely noted, the Redgraves have been actors for generations, the linchpin being the legendary actor Sir Michael Redgrave, who was Corin, Vanessa and Lynn's father. The younger ranks -- Lynn's daughter, Kelly Clark; Corin's daughter, Jemma Jones; Vanessa's daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson -- continue the tradition impressively. Not to take anything away from the good work of the resident acting companies of both the Alley and Moving Theatre, but wouldn't it be something if Boyd could somehow turn the Alley into a home away from home for these latter-day Barrymores? I say this not simply because any actor from the Redgrave clan is worth going to see.

I'm thinking more about the extra dimensions via birthright (and marriage: Liam Neeson is Natasha Richardson's husband) the Redgraves would bring to "family" playwrights ranging from Chekhov to Coward. In isolated cases, one-shot versions of this have been undertaken elsewhere, to great success. If the Redgraves are willing, Boyd could turn things up a notch. The groundwork has certainly been laid.

Why the Moving Theatre is important to the Alley is because of what the local theater has come to be under Boyd's direction. Boyd's Alley, straddling sophisticated complacency and hedged daring, always charms, frequently entertains, sometimes enlightens and periodically infuriates. Thoroughly professional, Boyd's Alley is all about polish, and when the gloss is so highly buffed that it positively glows, there is no better theater anywhere. But sometimes the veneer is all that we see, as if a pleasing surface is enough.

By its very nature, the Moving Theatre is all about immediacy -- the troupe is avowedly multicultural in its membership, choice of texts and agendas. It's also strapped for cash, receiving little state or public funding. The upshot is that the company can't help but get close to the material, participants and audience in ways that the Alley sometimes doesn't. And it's this yin to their yang that makes the partnership of the two particularly valuable. The Moving Theatre benefits by the Alley's finesse; the Alley benefits by the Moving Theatre's urgency.

So under Corin Redgrave's direction, Julius Caesar becomes knowing and ominous, exuding a swank vitality that doesn't often appear on the Alley's stage. Bells toll wildly during Caesar's murder. The conspirators stand above the crowd, defending their deed by exhibiting hands that drip with Caesar's blood. Caesar's corpse is left on-stage, as if damning evidence for future recourses. A silken scarf becomes a line drawn in the political sand. Even the theater's wings are used in ways that push the envelope.

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