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AN HONORABLE MAN : Douglas Rowe Sees Shaw's Ceasar as an Emperor With Clothes

September 06, 1990|JAN HERMAN | TIMES ORANGE COUNTY THEATER CRITIC

When Douglas Rowe first came to the Laguna Playhouse and Marthella Randall roped him into doing "The Happy Time," she also mentioned how much she liked George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" and how much she wanted to direct it.

That was in 1962, Rowe recalled the other day. Over the next decade she kept mentioning it to him, he said, "until finally about 16 years ago, we both decided: 'Okay, maybe we'll do it when I'm the right age for it.' "

Now, at 52, Rowe figures that he has bobbed and weaved long enough. He will play Caesar in the historical drama that Shaw regarded as his antidote to the portrait Shakespeare drew in "Julius Caesar." That political melodrama, in Shaw's view, reduced the Roman emperor to a "silly braggart" who hasn't a line "even worthy of a Tammany boss."

"Caesar and Cleopatra"--with Randall directing and Lillian Helm playing Cleopatra--premieres Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Moulton Theatre as the opener of the Playhouse's 70th season. It will run through Sept. 30.

"Outside of the demands of Shaw's language, Caesar is not a particularly showy role," said Rowe, who has been the prime artistic force at the Playhouse for nearly three decades--from 1964 to 1966 as managing director and, after stints in New York and elsewhere, from 1976 on as executive or artistic director.

"Certainly Caesar is less theatrical than Henry II in 'Beckett,' which I did for my 40th birthday, and Henry II in 'Lion in Winter,' which I did for my 50th," the lean, graying Paterson, N.J., native continued. "I'm trying to play him as down-to-earth as possible."

While not considered among the greatest of Shaw's plays--unlike "Man and Superman," which opens Friday, Sept. 7, at South Coast Repertory--"Caesar and Cleopatra" nonetheless revolves around a great "man of ideas" meant to be seen as a paradigm of political behavior. Though Caesar is a pragmatist, he is also an honorable man.

The play, written in 1898, is "meatier than usual for community theater," Rowe said, adding that Shaw's occupation of Orange County's two largest theaters at the same time is "purely coincidental"--unlike Caesar's occupation of Egypt.

The greatest challenge in preparing the role, Rowe maintained, has been to reconcile what he knows from his research about Caesar's historical relationship with Cleopatra and the arrangement Shaw invented for the play.

For instance, the real Caesar is reputed to have fathered Cleopatra's child, Caesarion (dubbed Ptolemy XIV), with whom she ruled Egypt for a time. But in "Caesar and Cleopatra," there isn't the slightest hint of a romantic relationship, let alone a sexual attraction. Shaw's Caesar is strictly a middle-aged father figure, more or less amused by Cleopatra, whom he instructs to be a queen by setting an example in the art of government.

Moreover, when Cleopatra meets Caesar at the beginning of the play, "she's this 16-year-old little teenybopper sitting on a Sphinx," Rowe said. "In reality, by the time they met she was already this Amazon woman of 22 or 23 who'd been out in the desert with about 2,000 troops fighting her brother's army."

Rowe tries to appear on the Playhouse stage every other year or so. Since 1978, in addition to "Beckett" and "The Lion in Winter," he has starred in "Kean," "Sly Fox," "Thornhill" and "Play It Again, Sam."

A professional actor who obtained his Equity card when he was still a 21-year-old college undergraduate, Rowe came to Southern California looking for acting work in 1962. He had spent his high school years in Newburyport, Mass., and had attended Bates College in Lewiston, Me. (after turning down a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame University).

Newly arrived in Los Angeles, Rowe supported himself as a substitute teacher in Watts and as a hospital night clerk while living downtown on 3rd Street, one floor beneath a brothel. ("I was so naive, I kept wondering why the elevator was busy at 2 a.m.") After a year, he'd managed to land one acting job on a TV series. ("I stood by a water cooler, and my sole line was: 'Any story in this, Mac?' ")

So Rowe didn't have much to lose by taking a role at the amateur Playhouse. He even had $100 in gas money to gain. Soon he began appearing regularly. Within a few months, he heard that the managing director's job was open. Rowe applied--along with eight other candidates who had directed at the Playhouse--and was invited to stage a piece to be done at the Santa Ana Play Festival.

"I chose the first act of T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral,' " he recounted. "Nobody understood it, which was great. But I said you're going to have to make your decision about the job before the festival because I don't want it to hinge on whether we win. So they decided. We didn't win. And I got the job."

He began his tenure by directing "Rashomon," staged "Twelfth Night" to open the 1964-65 season and made three prescient casting choices for the plays that followed: Mike Farrell, Harrison Ford and Teri Ralston, all of whom were young unknowns.

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