Aug. 14--Set in a world of endless political machinations and infighting, "Julius Caesar" has a universal quality that lends itself to modern-dress stagings.
James Andreassi, the artistic director of New Haven's Elm Shakespeare Company, said the play reminds him of the great paranoid political thrillers of the 1960s like "The Manchurian Candidate," "Fail-Safe" and "Seven Days in May."
The basic story is also being played out at this moment in more than a few countries around the world.
The assassins of Caesar's time find their parallels in 1960s America and then the rise of international terrorism at the turn of the century, so Andreassi sees "the (play's) notion of assassination being morally defensible and politically expedient" as timeless.
"Like the city of Rome, it's eternal," he said.
Andreassi zeroed in on "Julius Caesar" for this season because it is one of the few Shakespeare plays that he's never seen live. Lots of students read the play in high school and college, the actor-director noted, but it doesn't get nearly as many stagings as "Hamlet" or "Macbeth" or "Romeo and Juliet."
"I also liked it for our season because there are such great parts for actors of a certain age," he said, chuckling, referring to himself and many of the mature actors he's been working with at Elm Shakespeare since founding the company in 1995.
"One of the great things about Shakespeare is that you can do his plays straight or manipulate them, but stay true to the spirit of the piece," Andreassi said of the modern-dress version he has co-directed with veteran actor Alvin Epstein.
"Julius Caesar" arrives in the final month of a Connecticut summer that has been filled with outdoor Shakespeare, from stalwart companies like Shakespeare on the Sound and Connecticut Free Shakespeare, as well as newcomers like the Valley Shakespeare Festival in Shelton.
"People just love to sit outside and watch Shaksepeare," Andreassi said of the crowds that seem to grow every summer. (Elm Shakespeare's staging of "Macbeth" last year was the most popular production in the company's history.)
In this part of the country, the outdoor Shakespeare trend is often traced to the legendary New York City impressario Joe Papp, who started producing summer shows in Central Park more than 50 years ago.
"I'm not sure what the genesis of it is, but there seems to be a primal urge in the dark night to gather around light and listen to a story. And there is something so magical about the (stage) lights coming up as it gets dark that always move me spiritually," he said.
Chatting on a rehearsal day that appeared to be threatened by rain, Andreassi said that doing Shakespeare outdoors during a Connecticut summer is a lesson in patience.
"I used to weep," he said, laughing, of rainy nights during his season. "But I've learned that there is nothing I can do. Nature is our greatest ally and our biggest foe."
Summer Shakespeare companies are also impacted by the vagaries of show business, with actors sometimes having to leave a production when a better paying job comes along. This is how Andreassi went from his original plan to play the smallish title role to tackling Brutus, one of the central characters in the narrative. He also had to find a new Cassius.
"You have to understand when an actor gets a film, or any job with a bigger paycheck -- it's a fact of life for small nonprofit theater companies. ... I always try to hold myself in reserve just in case, so when we lost our Brutus over the Fourth of July weekend, I slid into (that part) and shifted things around," he said.
After spending the first decade of the company's life as a director and manager, Andreassi has enjoyed his return to acting in Edgerton Park the last few years.
"Brutus is an unbelievable part. One of the great Shakespeare roles. He wrote the play just before 'Hamlet' and you can see elements of that character in Brutus," he said.
The actor-director has seen more parallels with 1960s Washington, D.C., in playing this man who -- like John F. Kennedy -- went into politics after becoming famous as a war hero.
"He's a flawed but passionate man," Andreassi said. "And his tragic flaw is believing his own press."
firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @joesview
Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff St., New Haven. Thursday, Aug. 15-Sunday, Sept. 1, 8 p.m. Free. 203-874-0801, www.elmshakespeare.org.
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