PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Julius Caesar: The Noblest Roman Above The Title

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Julius Caesar: The Noblest Roman Above The Title
Every night around 11 PM, it's The Day of the Locust outside the Belasco. A star is in the house, or rather leaving the theatre, and fans are out in the lower hundreds, clamoring, rendering unto Brutus what is Brutus'.

Washington;  Sullivan; Carole Shorenstein Hays;  Sadler;  Feore; Willem Dafoe; Lynn Whitfield; Chris Meloni; Curtis Martin; Spike Lee; Phylicia Rashad & Samuel L. Jackson; Al Sharpton; Ethan McSweeney; Angela Bassett & Courtney B. Vance
Washington; Sullivan; Carole Shorenstein Hays; Sadler; Feore; Willem Dafoe; Lynn Whitfield; Chris Meloni; Curtis Martin; Spike Lee; Phylicia Rashad & Samuel L. Jackson; Al Sharpton; Ethan McSweeney; Angela Bassett & Courtney B. Vance Photo by Aubrey Reuben

All you need to know is the four words on the marquee: Denzel Washington Julius Caesar. Shakespeare's classic account of the highest-profile assassination in history opened April 3 for a limited (through June 12) run, its first Broadway mounting in 55 years, and the red-carpet treatment seemed an understatement.

Since his first (and only other) Broadway appearance in 1988's forgettable— and indeed forgotten—Checkmates, the movie-star thing has happened to Washington—that and two Oscars. (He is the only African American actor with that double distinction.) But, moving beyond Glory and Training Day, he felt old stage stirrings and returned to his roots—his Shakespearean roots at that, since he previously did a Richard III up in Central Park.

What those four not-so-little words on the Belasco marquee don't say is the role he chose to make his Broadway reentry—not the J.C. of the title or even the part that stars usually gravitate toward (the double-edged eulogizer, Marc Antony), but Marcus Brutus, the most humane and conflicted of assassins, a good man brought crashing down by A Cause.

The question of the evening was not "Et tu, Brute?" but "Porquois Brute?," and getting a straight answer to that was no easy endeavor at the after party held at Gotham Hall, a former bank which, with its spacious rotunda and towering columns, reflected more of the glory that was Rome's than the bombed-out, post-apocalyptic ruins at the Belasco.

First, Washington would go into his historical dance: "I met Dan Sullivan last June. He'd done it with this idea at The Old Globe in San Diego, and I thought that that was an interesting way of going at it. Needless to say, he has a great track record as a director. And I would have two great producers in Freddy DeMunn and Carole Shorenstein Hays. And the writer's pretty good, too. Everything just worked out." The trick to getting back on the boards was to get him away from the cameras long enough. Then, a Carlsbad Cavern opened up in his schedule: A movie, variously titled Tru Blu and American Gangsters, was suddenly scrapped at Universal, and, since he had a play-or-pay contract, he suddenly found himself with a $20-million paid vacation and a lot of creative time on his hands. He could finally afford to feed the actor inside of him.

"I wanted to be on stage, Broadway or Off-Broadway, whatever. I love Shakespeare. It's a great challenge. It's meaty. I really do enjoy it—the discovery of it—and, just night after night, finding something fresh. Every night it's something new. That's the great thing. It's live. And that's what I was missing. That's why I was looking forward to doing this."

Post-curtain calmness had returned to Washington by this point. "Opening night, you're a bit edgy. Mom is out there. And you have to wait—it was a 6:30 show which went up at 7—so your rhythm's off. It's just not the normal rhythm. It requires more energy."

But, again, why Brutus? He passed the buck to Sullivan. "I asked the director, `Well, what do you want me to do—Brutus or Cassius?' He said, 'Oh, Brutus, of course.'"

And wasn't the obvious choice an option? Marc Antony? "You know, that's the role," Washington exclaimed in a way that left no doubt that Marlon Brando had left his 52-year-old movie Marc on him. "I saw the film. It's a bit, maybe, more cerebral, but they could afford to be because they're on film. We have got to hit the back of the house."

Chances are, Washington's fans would turn to see him pushing a pushcart, warning of the Ides of March, as the soothsayer does in this production. He takes his movie-star status in stride—and seriously: "There are 997 people in there every night, and every night after the show I go out and sign autographs. These are the people who've supported me over the years, and it's just a way for me to say thank you. I can take an extra 15 minutes for that."

It falls to Eamonn Walker, late of London and TV's "Oz," to bite the Brando bullet and play Marc Antony. "The first thing you'd have to do would be to know something about all the people who have played it, because that's what your performance would be," he said, "so, very quickly, I had to pull out and make it mine. I had to make it all mine at the end of the day. For all of us, I think the important consideration is that the story is the main thing here and how it parallels with today's world—that's what we were trying to say."

Anthony Mackie, an admiring visiting-fireman from his own play (McReele) a few blocks away, put the two roles in proper perspective. "You need a play where Brutus can play the audience and Marc Antony can take them back, and this is a perfect example of that," he said. "I was really, really impressed by it, and I think the audience was moved."

(Not that Brando didn't feel intimidated by his Marc Antony predecessors. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed the 1953 film version, used to tell the story about how the actor, in preparing for the part, listened to every known recording of the role, lingering over nuances and shadings to find his way into the character. Finally, when he felt he was ready, he phoned Mankiewicz and asked to come over to do the "Friends, Romans, countrymen." When he finished the speech, he looked over expectantly at the director. Mankiewicz, face screwed in an incredulous twist, said: "You sound like June Allyson.")

William Sadler, a former Hamlet with extensive credits in Shakespeare and the even-more-produced Neil Simon (Biloxi Blues), presents, probably for the first time anywhere, the exposed backside of Julius Caesar. "It was a two-step process," his justification began. "The first day of rehearsal, there was a massage table there, and Dan said, 'Yeah, I was thinking he would be getting a massage on the morning he'd be going to the Senate.' And I'm thinking, 'They don't usually wear much when they're getting a massage, a towel or something.' Then we got to talking about it, and [the nudity] seemed to make wonderful sense. Five minutes later, we would see this man hacked to pieces, and what the audience would still have in their minds is all of that vulnerable white skin. Just for a second, you see he's just a man. That's what they killed in the Senate, not a bag of bloody clothes. And I think it works, whether people are aware of that connection or not. It's not just a man in a suit getting stabbed. Somehow, I think that it hurts more."

And Sadler wears his wounds well when his slain body is presented in a coffin to the people. "The wounds are all actually on the sheets I wear—I shouldn't give away the secret—but they're all painted on the sheets that way. None of them are painted on me."

Sadler is more than magnanimous about the cast of 30 playing his subjects. "Look down that register," he offered. "You can hand on to that cast Cassius or Casca or anyone. Go watch the understudies rehearse one day. These people are stunning. They play little tiny roles here, but they play leads in regional theatres all over this country. They show up because of Denzel, because of Dan Sullivan, because it's Shakespeare on Broadway."

Colm Feore, the "lean and hungry" Cassius of the occasion, seconded that motion: "I must say one of the things that we're all delighted by is that we have an extraordinary company of mature actors. Usually when you do a Julius Caesar or a big Shakespeare play, you have young apprentices and journeyman actors doing a lot of the supporting screaming, and the credibility level is somewhat lowered. In our situation, we've got great actors from all over the country so there's a depth to the acting quality. It just sounds better. The music of the play is handled by mature voices, which I think allows the audience to believe in it more. It adds a gravitates to the enterprise, and the nature of the violence is so much more dangerous because you know it's considered from a mature point of view."

On that last point, a first-row first-nighter sitting next to Daily News photographer Richard Corkery caught a little blood-splattering when the assassins dipped into Caesar's corpse.

The red-carpet arrivals at the theatre ran extra innings because of the overflow show of celebs. Wouldn't you know the name leading the photo tipsheet—Mariah Carey—was a no-show? And it wasn't much of a consolation prize that Beyonce swirled by like a blue tornado before anyone could ask Question One (mine was: what was it like to work with Steve Martin and Kevin Kline in the new Pink Panther due out in a few months?).

Otherwise: Willem Dafoe, Lynn Whitfield, BET owner Bob Johnson, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, rapper/DEJ JAM prexy Jay-Z, Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Ron Silver, boxing promoter Butch Lewis, singer Michael Bivins, Chris Meloni, New Yorks Jets running back Curtis Martin, Katie Holmes, dancer-choreographer Debbie Allen, Nia Long, actor Chewetel Ejiofor, music executive Sylvia Rhone, Chicago's Paige Davis and "The Wire's" Jamie Hector.

Robert DeNiro, 32 years down the road from Mean Streets, slipped in the back way with his Grace Hightower, but Harvey Keitel and his Daphna ran the gauntlet out front.

On his way into the theatre, Turner Classic Movies' amiable and informed host Robert Osborne was asked if he was expecting to enjoy the evening. A notorious tease, he said, "No, I'm not. I don't know the author." Similarly, Spike Lee was asked if he'd ever be interested in directing Shakespeare. "Theatre, maybe," he replied cautiously, "but I don't know about Shakespeare." The thought didn't sit well with him. Director Lee is the main reason Julius Caesar won't be extended. Right after the run, he and Washington will start shooting Inside Man, their fourth film together (after Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X and He Got Game) "It's something different for Denzel and me, and I'm looking forward to working with him again."

Hats off to Samuel L. Jackson in his signature beret and boxing legend Michael Spinks in an outsized black cowboy hat. (He removed it when he got into the theatre.)

Riding the red carpet like four horsemen of the apocalypse were politician Al Sharpton, televangelist T. D. Jakes, filmmaker Robert Townsend and composer Isaac Hayes. Jessica Lange moseyed over from her Glass Menagerie matinee, escorted by her son.

On the arm of Post columnist Michael Reidel was Angelica Torn, who has been splashing about her excellent one-woman show on Sylvia Plath, Edge, which started Off-Broadway and shifted to London. "I just did it in Miami at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and now I'm starting a university tour, beginning with Texas A&M. Then, I'm going into negotiations for the London premiere of one of my favorite plays that was on Broadway in the '80s. Can't say the title yet, but it may be on the West End in the fall."

Martha Plimpton, the daughter of Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, was in attendance on special family business. "I guess the easiest way to describe it," she said, "is that Dan Sullivan is my former stepfather." In fact, she left acting the chute early, and he directed her during her formative years in several productions at Seattle Rep, where he was artistic director. She's poised right now to open April 10 in The False Servant at CSC.

Two Frankies who formerly inhabited the Belasco during the run of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de LuneEdie Falco and Rosie Perez—arrived separately but almost side-by-side, and Rosie renewed acquaintances with one of the theatre's usherettes.

Director Ethan McSweeney: "I'm going to direct a Lee Blessing world premiere, Body of Water, at the Guthrie Theatre with Michael Learned in the lead." Blessing just had a play open at 59E59 Theatre, Going to St. Ives, with L. Scott Caldwell and "my girlfriend, Vivienne Benesch, so we're one family fully employed by the Blessings." Count your Blessings.

Angela Bassett, a Lady Macbeth to Alec Baldwin's Macbeth at The Public, arrived with her hubby, Courtney B. Vance. She was excited that they were bound for the Guthrie to do His Girl Friday, John Guare's rewrite of The Front Page, directed by the Guthrie's artistic director, Joseph Dowling. "First rehearsal is May 31, and we open July 2."

Star Jones and groom (Al Reynolds) found their way easily to the waiting mikes and tape recorders. Other couples included actor director Tim Reid and his actress wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid. And then there were the uncouples . . .

At the beginning of the evening, a reporter noticed by the Belasco box-office Ahmad Rashad, a sportscaster who once upon a time proposed, on camera, to Phylicia and had her accept. Apparently pleased with that memory, he said, "I see your wife coming." Rashad looked startled and, unamused in the extreme, wasted no time correcting him. "Ex-wife," he said firmly. The reporter closed his little storybook and apologized: "Pardon me, while I get this foot out of my mouth." Shot back Rashad: "Both feet."

The doors of the Belasco were slow to open, forcing both Rashads—after exchanging hi's and smiles—to stand there a small eternity chatting in their respective circle of friends. The two-and-a-half-hour drama that followed must have played like a blink to them.

Curtain call as <i>Julius Caesar</i>
Curtain call as Julius Caesar
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