‘Julius Caesar’ moves like a house on fire

April 3, 2017

(Right: In 1981, Robert Sicular played Mark Antony in a production of "Julius Caesar" at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival. This summer, he takes on the title character at CSF.)

There was a time, while filming “The Marathon Man,” when Dustin Hoffman binge drank and stayed up for 72 hours straight. He claims he did it for the sake of art, to make
that famous torture scene with Laurence Olivier as believable as possible.

On set the next morning, Hoffman was in a shambles. A calm, cool and well-rested Olivier gave his co-star the once over and remarked breezily, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

There’s a lesson here, and it’s one Robert Sicular returns to every time he prepares for a new role.

“I have Hoffman’d before,” Sicular admits. “But usually I’m more of the Olivier school.”

And thank goodness for that. To have relied solely on method acting or personal experience for every role Sicular’s ever played over his decades-long acting career might have damn near killed him.

The Olivier alternative has treated him well. As a young man (”in my stud muffin days,” Sicular quips), despite having been the kind of eccentric teenager who dressed up in Renaissance clothes at school, he played lots of “macho warrior types,” including Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” His performance as Brutus at California Shakespeare Theater was “effective,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle—despite the fact that, to his knowledge, he’s never betrayed a close friend or colleague.

This summer at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival will be his third go-around with “Julius Caesar.” This time, he’ll play the title character, a powerful but aging leader with influential friends-turned-enemies—even though he’s never been stabbed in the back, literally or metaphorically.

Sicular is proof positive that, when it comes to “Julius Caesar,” there’s no need to pull a Hoffman. All the inspiration an actor needs is within the pages of a newspaper or history book.

“This is the brilliance of Shakespeare,” Sicular says. “He wrote this thing 400 years ago about something that happened 2,000 years ago, and yet, the same crap is still going on.”

There’s a reason “Julius Caesar” is still required reading for so many high school students. Demagoguery, feigned humility, manipulative speeches, the sacrifice of human lives for the so-called greater good—all the play’s themes were as relevant then as they are now.

“It’s just such a great piece about history,” says Anthony Powell, who directs the production this summer. “From the Greeks to the Romans to now, we’ve said, ‘Okay, yeah, it’s violence, but we can make good come out of it.’ You never can. It never works. But we do not learn that lesson.”

Perhaps it’s the togas and the 2,000-year-old setting that allow us to ignore the play’s undeniable connections to modern life. But don’t let the togas fool you, Sicular says: Each character, like all of us, is deliciously complex and conflicted.

To Sicular, Brutus isn’t just the man who stabbed a universally-loved leader—he’s also the man who can’t betray the sadness he feels after his wife’s suicide, lest it affect his fight for the Roman Republic’s future.

“I feel that he’s a very emotional man but also a stoic, suppressive,” he says. “He feels very deeply about things but can’t show it”—something many men, even now, might relate to.

What Powell loves about “Caesar” is not just its relatability but its clear, easy-to-understand language and quick, intoxicating plot.

“‘Caesar’ moves like a house on fire, just at a breakneck pace,” he says. “Things get wildly out of control so fast. That’s something I want to convey on stage this summer.”

Powell firmly believes just about anyone can enjoy the play if it’s done well, including Shakespeare neophytes and those who know absolutely nothing about the history of Rome.

“When I first read ‘Julius Caesar,’ I don’t think I knew the story at all, but I was so taken with it,” he says. “If I had a nickel for every time someone prefaces a remark about a play with, ‘I don’t know anything about theatre but …’ I’d be rich. if we’re doing our job right, you don’t have to know anything about theatre.”

Even though Robert Sicular has studied Latin, has read the historical fiction series “Masters of Rome” by Colleen McCollough, has watched all of the HBO series “Rome” and has taken lots of time to explore his characters, he agrees that there’s no need for audiences to Hoffman this one.

“Shakespeare created characters you can look at and go, ‘I recognize that person, I’ve known someone like that,’” Sicular says. “You don’t have to read up on Roman history to see that this play holds a mirror up to nature and society.”