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Good Will hunting: Must Shakespeare be dressed in different clothes to matter?

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Just after the assassination in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, there's a bizarre moment when the conspirators decide to publicly bathe themselves in the slain dictator's blood. They don't simply celebrate; they also imagine how the future will enshrine them: "How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!" cries Cassius, the lead conspirator.

If it's a prime moment of dramatic irony -- the characters unaware of how the audience will interpret their behavior -- it also anticipates that future productions might take on novel flavors.

Shakespeare's plays are perennially subject to clever re-stagings in states once unborn and accents previously unknown. As Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre prepares its own Julius Caesar, in a unique pairing with a play about the Iraq War, it's fair to ask what Shakespeare intended -- and whether new approaches can truly illuminate 400-year-old iambic pentameter, and vice versa.

Julius Caesar debuted at the Globe Theater in 1599 -- the year examined in James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, the book that inspired PICT artistic director Andrew Paul to produce Caesar alongside David Hare's Stuff Happens. Shapiro locates Shakespeare's concerns in such matters as anxiety over who would succeed Queen Elizabeth I.

The beloved and unmarried monarch was four decades into her reign, and without an heir. Succession was especially worrisome because Elizabeth had settled England as Protestant, avoiding bloody religious wars, which might then spring up in her wake. Moreover, fears of Catholic plots to assassinate the queen were afoot. There was also the threat of another attack by the Spanish armada, which England had turned away barely a decade earlier.

So why mine Plutarch's Lives for a 1,600-year-old story set in Rome? For one, commenting directly on the day's politics could have cost the 35-year-old Bard his head. Still, says Duquesne University associate professor of English Stuart Kurland, "He must have found something in history that resonated at his time."

Unlike Tudor England, Rome circa 44 B.C. was an established empire. But Caesar was already a (childless) dictator-for-life, and the conspirators were senators who feared losing their own perks if he were crowned king. So Elizabethans would have seen Caesar's story as an allegory for their own political instability, says Duquesne English professor Albert C. Labriola. The threat of post-Elizabeth factionalism among aristocrats may also be mirrored in the play, with its post-assassination power struggles, says University of Pittsburgh assistant professor Jen Waldron.

In Elizabethan England, any major public debates about the country's status as a monarchy (as opposed to a republic) were decades in the future, says Waldron. Yet modern interpreters of Julius Caesar have often staged it to comment on the corruptions of overweening power. In 1937, for instance, Orson Welles' Mercury Theater mounted a version in fascist uniforms that equated Caesar and Mussolini.

Duquesne's Labriola, for one, is dubious about such "topicalizing." He recalls a 1980s Pittsburgh Public Theater version of Macbeth staged to recall the Islamic fundamentalist overthrow of the Shah of Iran. As for Caesar, Labriola feels the old Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival came to bury the play with a 1980s staging that updated the story by putting the characters on another planet ... in spacesuits.

"That's an insult to both Shakespeare and the audience," says Labriola. Even such an acclaimed production as Kenneth Branagh's London staging of Henry V, which explicitly referenced the Vietnam War, "kind of eliminates the subtleties and nuances of Shakespeare and the wide appeal he has," says Labriola.

Audiences will grasp the themes, and draw their own contemporary parallels, even if the actors wear togas, says Labriola. "Who does not perceive Mark Antony as a demagogue?" he says. "People try to improve on Shakespeare, and what they usually do is destroy Shakespeare."

PICT, with Andrew Paul directing, contemporizes Caesar in a few provocative ways. One is to mix modern and ancient Roman costuming. Another is to give Mark Antony, Caesar's protégé, access to electronic mass media during his famous "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, which turns the mob against the conspirators.

"That's perfect, that's really good," says Waldron, when that staging element is described to her. Shakespeare, she notes, fills Caesar with references to theater -- the mass media of his day -- and makes it clear that Mark Antony, like Caesar himself, knows how to use it, while the conspirators don't. So when Brutus and his fellow conspirators bathe in Caesar's blood, it comes off as the opposite of what they intend, barbaric rather than symbolic of liberty.

PICT's other gambit is a dual-casting approach that has the same actors each playing two roles in the back-to-back productions of Caesar and Stuff Happens -- explicitly twinning, most notably, pompous Caesar and Dick Cheney, cunning upstart Mark Antony and George W. Bush, and honorable Brutus and Colin Powell.

"Oh, that's great," says Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of literary and cultural studies Michael Witmore, laughing, when told of the dual casting. "That's a way to really use the play. That says something about Powell that you really couldn't say sitting around on a Sunday show."

New York-based actor David Whalen, who plays Antony and Bush, also finds the pairings apt. "There's something about the confidence of these guys -- it's unflinching. They both know how to lead," he says of his two roles. Yet onstage, the effect might be more muted than you'd expect (or fear): In other words, no West Texas drawl for the Roman senator. "They're two different plays," says Whalen. "That would not work."

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