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Sterling Siblings

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

Though Corin Redgrave is utterly convincing as Caesar, making him both regal and recalcitrant; though Vanessa Redgrave's small, pivotal turn as Portia is so astute and ethereal that you don't really mind that she's a bit old to be the wife of Brutus; and though most of the rest of the cast hold their own, it's the Moving Theatre's David Harewood as Marc Antony and the Alley's John Feltch as Brutus who are the center of attention. They play off each other marvelously. Harewood (who turns the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech into an electrifying example of how justified passion can be part and parcel of manipulating the public) is all the more grippingly charismatic in the face of Feltch's honest vulnerability, and vice versa. Feltch also pairs off well with the Moving Theatre's Howard Saddler's poignantly earnest and entreating Cassius; how they go at each other when feeling assaulted from all sides is one of the highlights of the play.

The faults of the production are negligible. The intermission makes dramaturgical sense, but that doesn't necessarily mean much to audiences who have to sit through a two-hour first act and then head home after a quick 45-minute second act. Purists may object to the many dialects, especially since some of the American actors have trouble making them sound believable. But this is, to borrow an adjective from the Bard, an honorable show.

Julius Caesar is in more control than its Antony and Cleopatra counterpart, which continues Antony's saga five years later. As a text, Julius Caesar is famously relentless, staying on its fated course; Antony and Cleopatra is infamously disjointed, veering widely. Those are problems actors and directors can do little about. Not that Vanessa Redgrave doesn't make an interesting try. Under her direction, much of Antony and Cleopatra's first act is light and airy. This is a provocative, if tenuous, vision. There are comical swoons between the famous lovers; their quarrels are like games played for amusement; and with chug-a-lugs, phallic jokes and a soused nobleman staggering around in a bra, the celebration over the pact with Pompey is no less than an Elizabethan frat party. Much of Act Two is serious and impassioned. This seems right. An omnipresent soothsayer silently mumbles with palsy. Bongo drums tap out a beat as calculated as the plans being made against Antony. The final image is startlingly macabre. But though always engaging, the show nevertheless feels too episodic, at times even schizophrenic. The two parts just don't fit together.

It's an interesting choice to make Antony and Cleopatra share embraces that are more familiar than passionate. They kiss a lot, but it's mostly fondly. Consequently, Redgrave plays Cleopatra with a flutter. She talks rings around Antony, has humorous, irate and irrational outbursts and betrays naked, sobbing grief on any number of occasions. Redgrave has the glorious ability to stop on a dime and switch emotional gears. Her Cleopatra is memorably, girlishly eccentric. I didn't doubt her acting for a minute.

Her interpretation, however, is another matter. As Redgrave plays her, the enigma of Cleopatra is that it's never clear what type of spell she casts over Antony. Thanks to David Harewood's swashbuckling performance, it's readily apparent that what she's taken with is Antony's masculinity. But why Antony jeopardizes all for her is left hanging. Is she a temptress, a voluptuary, a chameleon or what? We never know. Along these lines, the fundamental ambivalence that gets in the way of Antony's better judgment is nowhere in sight.

In plain sight as the cocksure yet noble Proculeius is the Alley's Alex Allen Morris. This goes both ways, however, for he's much more effective with his bearing than his voice. Deserving mention from the Moving Theatre is Howard Saddler, whose Octavius Caesar is terrifically reasonable and determined at the same time.

Both of these productions are game. It's just that Julius Caesar is game as in plucky and resolute in the midst of anything, while Antony and Cleoptra is game as in ready and willing to try anything.

A word must be said about the expansive, crumbling two-story courtyard set that the Alley scene shop has created under the Redgraves' supervision. Giving off pointed atmosphere that works well for both shows, the set once again demonstrates how the Alley carpenters are extraordinary artists. It's not abundant resources that make them exemplary; it's the pride they take in their work. And pride is what everyone who works at the Alley, and everyone who goes to the Alley, can take with this new, dynamic union of companies.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra play in repertory through February 11 at the Alley Theatre,

615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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