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July 22, 1986|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

SAN DIEGO — The stage is black and bare. A jagged crack has sundered the ground. Police mug shots flash across a TV screen and a hippie soothsayer, high as a kite, in shades and moccasins, utters the famous warning about the Ides of March.

Can this be "Julius Caesar"?

It can, and the question of whether Shakespeare's massive drama of political power struggle can be made to fit the Old Globe's relatively small Cassius Carter Centre Stage is never an issue.

It fits--and well.

If anything, this Dakin Matthews adaptation "for 13 actors" makes a strong case for future trimmed-down versions of this infrequently staged play. As Matthews and his wife and co-director, Anne McNaughton, go to some lengths to explain in the program, the emphasis is placed here on the human rather than the political equation. When was it elsewhere? Yet, even when the approach suffers conceptual lapses, it remains absorbing.

The bare-bones aspect of the staging is not a problem. Less is more. But the updating of the play, which takes us to an intentionally vague and war-torn modern locale (landing us somewhere between ancient Rome and Banana Republic--the store, largely thanks to the Nicaragua chic Lewis Brown costumes), does create confusion. So does some perplexing double-casting. How wise is it to have Erica Yohn as a rather stiff Calpurnia pleading with Julius Caesar not to go to the senate one moment, show up the next on the scene of Caesar's assassination as Octavius' servant? Guaranteed to create confusion with a secondary character of questionable value.

The Matthews adaptation also requires some suspension of disbelief when men with submachine guns resort to daggers as a means of suicide or--more improbable--to assassinate their head of state.

Yet, most of the time, one bobs along with the mythology. Watching essentially moral men caught in the vortex of a supreme political conflict compels its own attention, especially when it is argued in such skillful and persuasive oratory. What one wishes is that the production at the Cassius Centre Stage had been more evenly cast.

John Vickery is a splendid Brutus--strong yet vulnerable, a well-meaning, melancholy man prey to a wrong decision who finds his only way out on the point of a dagger. His scene with his wife, Portia (a lovely Kandis Chappell), is tenderly seductive.

Marc Alaimo's Cassius, on the other hand, is so intense and shifty-eyed, he makes collusion with Brutus seem unlikely. As depicted here, their personalities are incompatible, while Earle Hyman, as a Caesar who should be complex, settles for projecting such benevolence and absence of ambition that it is hard to believe anyone-- even for an instant--could think him a threat.

Yet, the weakest link in this chain is Tom Harrison's Mark Antony. From his first entrance, inexplicably garbed in the briefest running shorts, Harrison, who also lacks the vocal weight for the role, looks more like a surfer in a bike-and-beachwear fashion parade than the pride and hope of Rome. A proper balance in casting is important to any play. In this one it is crucial if Brutus and Mark Antony are to be evenly matched.

Some strengths emerge--excellent sound design by Corey L. Fayman, Fred M. Duer's plain but dramatic set, the highly effective ambush of Cinna by flashlight, the use of Caesar's ghost at Philippi--but they don't quite overcome the weaknesses. In the end, this "Caesar" points the way to a workable approach more than it delivers it.

'JULIUS CAESAR' Shakespeare's tragedy presented by the Old Globe Theatre on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, San Diego. Directors Anne McNaughton, Dakin Matthews. Set Fred M. Duer. Costumes Lewis Brown. Lights John B. Forbes. Sound Corey L. Fayman. Fight choreography Steve Rankin. Videography Michael Holten. Stage manager Diane F. DiVita. Cast Earle Hyman, John Vickery, Marc Alaimo, James Morrison, David Toney, Peter Carlton Brown, Eric Grischkat, Ric Oquita, Kandis Chappell, David Anthony Smith, Erica Yohn, Tom Harrison, John Walcutt. Alternates with "Beyond the Fringe" through Sept. 21.

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