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The World's a Stage 

Talking global politics, and local theater, with Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre Artistic Director Andrew Paul

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

The Roman Empire, circa 44 BC, standing at a crossroads ... late16th-century England poised on the brink of imperial expansion ... a modern-day America tottering even as it displays its economic and military might. To Andrew Paul, artistic director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, the same tensions echoed in each of these eras, the same concerns about power and politics. And each era could see itself reflected in the others.

Thus William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, written near the tumultuous end of the Elizabethan era, looks to the imperial anxieties of ancient Rome. And Stuff Happens, David Hare's 2004 play exploring the current Bush White House as it prepared to invade Iraq, can sound as though its dialogue were taken from a much older script.

So much so, in fact, that Paul is directing the two plays consecutively, with a provocative twist: The same actors will play key roles in both Julius Caesar and Stuff Happens, suggesting the parallels between these figures. The casting will emphasize the echoes of Caesar in Vice President Dick Cheney (both played by Larry John Meyers); Mark Antony in George W. Bush (David Whalen); Cassius in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Richard McMillan); and tragic, ill-used Brutus in Secretary of State Colin Powell (Allen Gilmore).

The plays are part of a series PICT is calling "The Price of Enterprise," but the production of Stuff Happens -- which was named for Rumsfeld's notorious quote about looting in post-invasion Iraq -- is notable enough in itself. After a well-received premiere at London's National Theatre, the British playwright's quasi-documentary work made its U.S. premiere in 2005, at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. While it was staged again last year in New York City, PICT's will be the first full production by a major company since.

I understand this dual production started with a book?

It's called A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, by James Shapiro. His premise is that Shakespeare wrote his best work in times of really high crisis in the British Empire. If he wrote Hamlet, and Henry V, and Julius Caesar and As You Like It, or started writing them, during that year, the key thing happening, of course, was that Queen Elizabeth was coming to the end of her reign. No one knew who was going to replace her. Outside the realm, the Spanish armada [had attacked] in 1588, but the Spanish were threatening to send another one.

Julius Caesar depicts a crisis in the Roman republic. Why pair it with Stuff Happens?

I don't think many people in this country really think about America as an empire, which of course we are. To anybody outside of America, it's clearly an empire. [Plus, the play explores] whether 9/11 is the beginning of the decline of American empire.

In the case of ancient Rome, in the case of Britain, and in the case of the American economic empire, all three had this sort of overbearing notion that they would civilize the rest of the world. Look at what our administration was saying about Iraq: They're going to greet us with open arms when we bring democracy to Iraq. It's so wrong-headed, but I think it's so easy to believe that everyone should want to be like the most powerful country in the world.

If the American Constitution was based upon the ideas of the founding principles of the Roman republic, why wouldn't we be thinking about what happened in Rome, about why they had a precipitous decline?

Others have seen such parallels.

When I was at this thing at the Rivers Club ["The U.S. in Iraq," a March 30 World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh forum featuring retired high-ranking military officers], I swear to God, they brought up ancient Rome 25 times. Totally unrelated to what we [PICT] were doing. I think that I'm not grasping at straws here.

You note that there are a dozen productions of Julius Caesar being staged in the U.S., but not so with Stuff Happens.

With all this stuff going on in Iraq, and all these elections, and the beginning of the search for the next president, we're the only regional company between New York and L.A. producing a work that was a sold-out hit on both coasts. Which makes you wonder: Are American theaters really afraid to embrace stuff of an overt political nature? Are they afraid they're gonna scare off their audience base?

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 It could also be the fact that this is a large-scale play that has 16 actors in it.

Stuff Happens dovetails on-the-record stuff, like Bush's 9/11 speech, with Hare's speculative dramatizations of private meetings, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair's pre-invasion visit to Bush's ranch.

When I first read the play, I was kind of disappointed because I thought it was a little too documentary in nature. Then I went to see the New York [production, based on Hare's revised script]. Amazingly enough, by the time you get to the scene at the ranch, it's turned into drama. It's one of the few times I've ever been to the theater that the audience actually applauded lines in the play.

Like what?

One of the lines that gets the biggest applause is [when Powell tells Bush,] "Of course Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. How do we know that? We still have the receipts!"

Discuss the decisions you made in terms of dual casting. It would seem natural to have the same actor playing Caesar play Bush as well. Why didn't you do that?

I never associated Bush with Caesar. Even though Bush has this thing -- "I am the decision-maker, I don't have to listen to other people" -- [at the] World Affairs Council [forum], almost all of these guys felt that the decision to go into Iraq was not Bush's decision. This was something that was pushed on Bush by Rumsfeld and Cheney. [Powell's former chief of staff, retired Col.] Lawrence Wilkerson actually said -- I couldn't believe he said this -- they chose Bush in a way, because they felt that he's somebody they could guide, and that they didn't have the ability themselves to get back into the seat of power.

So why Bush as Antony instead?

Mark Antony is painted by Shakespeare as sort of a jock. He's a drinker, he's not really a serious politician. But lo and behold, when he's put on the spot [after Caesar is killed], he delivers a beautiful speech and all of a sudden becomes a major player. The speech that Bush made, that was sort of his defining moment, was the speech in response to 9/11. He was able, with a single speech, to give himself the imprimatur he needed to carry on his mission.

Marc Antony refers to himself as "a plain blunt man" -- "I'm just a regular guy." I think that's the key to George W. Bush's appeal. And they both consider themselves to be on some kind of a divine mission. That's where it really starts to get interesting. Because Marc Antony really believed he was avenging Caesar's death -- [Caesar] was in a way his father figure -- that he was on an inspired mission to reverse the course of this insurrection. In the same way that Bush, of course, really believes that he is somehow sent by God to do this mission in the Middle East. And of course, he's also avenging his father!

[But] Antony and [co-conspirator] Octavius are incredibly cynical characters. Antony has that beautiful speech, and I think he really believes the speech, [then] he turns to his man and he says, "Well, that was pretty good, let's see how it works." And it's such a cynical moment, because we really want to like him. And I kinda feel that way about modern politics: Everybody's got good and bad sides.

And Cheney as Caesar?

He's probably the single most powerful vice president in history.

Some critics consider Julius Caesar really to be "The Tragedy of Brutus," who conspires against Caesar in order to protect the republic. Similarly, Stuff Happens focuses on Powell, who will be played by the actor who played Brutus.

Colin Powell was the conscience of the Bush administration in the David Hare play, just like Brutus is the conscience of the senate of Rome in Julius Caesar.

[But] Brutus is really not a hero. This is someone who executes a coup -- and again, it's a pre-emptive strike. Caesar hasn't actually done anything that's given the indication that he's going to crown himself emperor.

Powell's flaws, by contrast, seem to include his loyalty.

You know Powell had that opinion [against invading Iraq]. The question is, why didn't he say anything? Why did he toe the company line? Why did he leave quietly? Maybe things would have gone differently if he had raised a stink in the press. I think we would have had more debate in this country, because he's somebody who really had the respect of a lot of Americans.

Some critics felt Hare left Powell off easy. Do you think we just want to believe there was at least one honorable person in the room?

I think it's important. When you boil it down, Brutus was the only one of the conspirators who did begin out of an honest sort of motive, a noble motive. He really did believe it was for the good of Rome.

Some parallels are less obvious. For instance, does it make sense to pair lead conspirator Cassius with Rumsfeld, who was a Bush loyalist?

That's a hard pairing -- the reason being, of course, Cassius is the undermining element in Julius Caesar. Rumsfeld is not necessarily an undermining element, but he's definitely a guy with a very strong sort of agenda that is being pushed, perhaps, off a personal motive. Or an ideology that's he's had for 30 years.

Meanwhile, Caesar's assassination feels more like the invasion of Iraq.

In Iraq, we thought, "Well, we'll roll in there," and then we never thought, "What's going to happen after we get there?" The same thing with the assassination: Their idea was, "We're gonna take out Caesar." No one thought, "Well, then what happens?"

So who is the play's central character?

I think the central character of Julius Caesar is Rome itself. I really wanted to focus on the idea of an empire, and how history has never really changed. The players change, but the ideas that create the issues are the same.

What will your production of Julius Caesar look like on stage?

The designer, Iosef Yusupov, came up with the idea of using an amphitheater, like the Roman Coliseum, as the basic set. Then the senators come out and they're in suits, like today. In the civil war [scenes], they're wearing fatigues and combat boots, they look like our army in Iraq -- but they're also wearing Roman armor, and fighting with swords and shields. We're kind of fusing the two.

And adding in some video?

[With] Mark Antony, what would happen if a guy was put into that position today [speaking after Caesar's death]? [He'd] make sure that speech is distributed to every media outlet in the world. We're gonna have two cameras on him, and we'll project him, the very presidential face -- that turns into George Bush in Stuff Happens. Then it's sort of broadcast in a way that Brutus can immediately recognize, "Hey, I've been trumped. This guy's really outmaneuvered me here using the media."

Some of parallels between Caesar and current events are indirect. Do you think the audience might get distracted trying to find them?

I don't think so. I think the play itself is so compelling. There's a palpable tension. And then the aftermath [of Caesar's assassination] is one play, and the civil war is a whole 'nother play. And then you have chaos -- and that's what happened in Iraq. We built [the justification for invading], got into Baghdad -- uh oh. Chaos. And we still have the chaos today.

I think what both [plays] do really successfully is they reduce the political to the personal. In both cases the characters come across as very three-dimensional -- with agendas, and personalities. In both cases they introduce the wives: In Stuff Happens, you have the scene where Laura Bush comes in, she's baked a pie, it's all homey. In the Shakespeare, of course, you see Caesar at home with Calphurnia, his wife. It's important that we get that aspect of it, because we want to make sure that we see them as human beings. Of course, we never see a wife with Cassius or Rumsfeld in either play! [Laughs.]

The London production of Stuff Happens differed greatly from the New York version. Are you using one or the other as a model?

The production in L.A. [and] the production in London were big and bold, epic productions. New York boiled it down to almost a town-hall meeting -- which is the course we're going [by staging it in the Henry Heymann Theater], because I thought it was incredibly successful. It did kind of reduce it to the personal, in an overt way.

Julius Caesar we're doing on a larger scale, upstairs [in the Charity Randall Theatre], in a more epic production. I wanted to contrast the two. I really think the audience should feel like they're present at a meeting where these ideas come out.

In London, critics commented that Bush seemed more clever as the play progressed; in the New York version, he apparently stayed dumb. What approach are you taking?

This is one of the smart things Hare has done: He doesn't paint Bush as an idiot. Bush is actually a pretty complex guy in the play, and I think it's important that he's played as a complex guy. [In New York,] they were playing for too many laughs. I'd like to believe that he's a much more complex figure that what we see. That's far more interesting than that he's really this goofball dimwit at the center of this maelstrom. What if he's an active participant in these discussions with Rumsfeld and Cheney?

Are you worried about the material alienating part of the audience?

When I first announced to my board that we were going to do the play, I did meet with some negative reaction. That reaction actually diminished over the last year, after I started asking them to read the play.

Some of my audience does strongly support the occupation, strongly supports Bush to this day, and I got a letter from one fellow who goes, "This is clearly your own personal political viewpoint coming out in the programming. You state that you're looking to engage the audience in a civic dialogue about the major issue of our time. Somehow I don't think that dialogue is what you're looking for."

My response is, of course, by him writing to me, and me responding ... we are engaging in dialogue.

Hare also provides contrasting views in a series of monologues. He includes, for example, a journalist character who asks how comfortable Westerners dare quibble over the precise manner in which Iraq was liberated.

And it's the single most potent speech in the whole play. That and the Iraqi exile at the end. They're the two moments when the audience sits there and goes, "Wow. I kinda forgot about that."

Do you think the play can engage mainstream audiences?

Two of the actors were actually listening to [conservative local radio host] Fred Honsberger. The caller was saying, "George Bush is coming to Pittsburgh. Hey, while he's here, Stuff Happens will be on Pittsburgh Irish & Classical." It shows you the play does have some impact. I think stuff like this can intersect with a community that by and large doesn't attend the arts.

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Pittsbugh Irish & Classical Theatre presents

The Price of Empire

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, April 12-28.

Stuff Happens, by David Hare, May 10-June 2.

Via Dolorosa, by David Hare, April 22, 24 and 29, and May 1.

Nine Parts of Desire, by Heather Raffo, May 19-June 3.

Mabou Mines' Finn, by Jocelyn Clarke, May 6.

All performances at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org

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