Caesar in Sneakers

"Mischief, thou art afoot," Marcus Antonius says after inciting his fellowmen. "Take

thou what course thou wilt." The same goes for Main Street Theater's intriguing, game production of Julius Caesar. It takes what course it wilt with Shakespeare's popular text.

Director Steve Garfinkel boldly removes the play from its historical moment. His goal is to make Caesar contemporary and immediate, rightly suggesting that political ambition and public responsibility are just as pertinent today in America as they were in ancient Rome. Thus, he instructs his set designer to create an abstract environment, asks his costumer to design modern clothing, challenges his sound-man to make appropriate music. And they do -- these artistic technicians put their own individual stamps on the production.

This is exactly the problem: the idiosyncratic parts don't create a unified whole. It's not that you can't tinker with setting and time, of course; difficulty arises, though, when the various interpreters aren't in sync.

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Don Redman's compelling set is all stark minimalism. Vertical strips of gauzy curtains form the perimeter of a somber, stately trimmed orange floor on which five black boxes of various sizes are flipped over, moved around and put together to suggest various scenes: pubs, thrones, podiums. Occasionally the curtains are draped as banners or a tent, but the atmospherics predominantly come from the manipulation of these elemental tinker toys. The bare necessities in basic blacks, whites and oranges -- along with an imposing, mounted metal sculpture symbolizing an eye (an unfathomable creation resembling a monkey also makes an appearance) -- convey atemporality, logistics in a vacuum.

Rebecca Greene Udden's costumes, on the other hand, do suggest a time frame -- actually, two: today and tomorrow. Sunglasses, Levis, leather jackets, baseball caps, tank tops, gym shorts and Speedos have the feel of the here and now. But putting noblemen in turtlenecks with padded vests or in housecoats we normally associate with waiters illustrates some science-fiction future. Dressing the conspirators in raincoats and overcoats further connotes afteryears. So do the color choices: stylish browns, grays, off-whites, tans. (These subdued palettes, and the actors within them, are nearly drowned out by the glow in the orange of the floor.)

Rodney Walsworth's music only compounds things: repetitive drums that are mystical, ominous, nearly tribal. It's intrusive, verging on condescending, and foreshadows the content of every upcoming scene. Sometimes quite loudly.

What's more, the production is dangerously divided into two acts. Theatrical wisdom says you lower the intermission curtain just when the audience wants to come back for more. Here, the first act concludes with Caesar's death -- meaning the second is a bit anticlimactic, since Brutus and Marcus Antonius make their famous speeches quite early: it takes the conspirators a long time to die.

Garfinkel's orchestration is sometimes inharmonious, but his manipulation of the actors is better realized, as when Cassius stands behind Brutus and massages his shoulders, trying to convince him to become an ally. Or when Brutus staggers after Caesar's murder, as if in drunken bloodlust.

The actors' elocution is uniformly approachable (this can never be overappreciated). Their performances, however, are uneven. The clear standout is Randal Kent Doerner, who grows into Cassius, exhibiting the lean and hungry look of a man who, as Caesar fears, thinks too much. He's particularly effective at having grave misgivings. Freeman Williams's Brutus is authoritative but not at metaphysical war, troubled but not quite tragic. Caesar should stride the world like a Colossus; Charlie Trotter plays the willful king like Lloyd Bridges doing Jack Palance. Rodney Walsworth is miscast as Marcus Antonius, one-dimensional with his damning oratory and soft with his boldness. Among the supporting cast, Erica K. Garrison's concerned Portia and Orvis A. Melvin's wily Casca deserve mention.

Given the production's relatively brisk running time of just under three hours, Main Street Theater -- deserving all sorts of praise for producing Shakespeare locally -- isn't to be faulted for trying. Rather for trying too hard.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar continues through February 20 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times, 524-6706.

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