Sterling Siblings

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.

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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