Putting the fight in 'Julius Caesar'

Brookfield's McFarland not only plays Julius Caesar, he trained the actors who rub him out

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By ELENA LEVENSON

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! Also, your fake knives, bayonets and dummy M16s. As recently as mid-June, the fight director and Roman emperor for Oak Park Festival Theatre's upcoming production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" was talking with the Army ROTC about outfitting his (and his opponents') armies with fake weapons.

Unfortunately, U.S. Army recruits will start boot camp this summer at the same time Caesar's ancient Romans start battling each other, so Brookfield resident John McFarland has had to turn instead to his actors, his personal armory and weaponry borrowed from other theatres.

If bayonets don't sound like your typical centurion's choice of arms, that's because "Julius Caesar", in keeping with Festival Theatre's tradition of adapting Shakespearean plays to modern times, is set in the 1960s. The text of the play remains unaffected by the change in setting: Caesar is stabbed to death for his ambition, as even his friend Brutus believes he has become dangerously power-hungry.

After Caesar's death, Mark Antony seeks to rule Rome with his allies, but the conspirators who killed Caesar rebel against this new power, too; the action tumbles downhill with breakneck speed, and the play ends with multiple deaths.

The new setting does, however, affect the way the armies are equipped and the way they fight. Caesar's rightful heirs are "as regular army as possible," said fight director McFarland, i.e. in holsters, 9mm standard-issue guns and bayonets, while the conspirators should seem like guerrillas, using "any weapons they could in any way they could."

Even the fighting styles of both armies should suggest the '60s.

"If I was setting this in Rome, we would use Roman short-swords ... more of the style you would see in movies like Troy," noted McFarland, a former Oak Parker who now lives in Brookfield. "In our production, we now start to see a little bit of Asian styles influencing the military style of fighting" with knives, arms, and martial arts.

Understandably, not all of the actors in "Julius Caesar" came to the production well-versed in stage combat, let alone fusion fighting techniques, and McFarland did have to train a few actors with little or no stage combat experience.

"You create a basic skills passage," he said, "how to hold a knife, how to cut, how to thrust, what are the targets. How to throw a punch, how to receive a punch."

McFarland himself has been working in stage combat for 18 years; he became a certified fight director in 1997 and is one of only four American fight directors to be certified both with Society of American Fight Directors and with the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat.

As a result, McFarland holds strong beliefs about the necessity of knowing how to fight onstage.

"One would hope you're an actor with some training. Skills get you jobs," he said. "To go into a Shakespeare play without stage combat skills is like going to 42nd Street without knowing how to tap dance. And show me a Broadway choreographer who will teach an actor how to tap dance before a big musical! But that's what a fight choreographer is asked to do all the time."

Yet, regardless of an actor's stage combat experience, McFarland relies on the actors to make sense of the fight scenes.

"The way I work is intent-based," he said. "My objective and my obstacle, working in actor language, [is] having them using their bodies to do what their characters want them to do ... the fight has to help drive the character along. Otherwise, why do it?"

Working with the actors playing bellicose characters also helps McFarland as he plans the movement in a fight scene, the action of which is rarely fully described in the play's text.

"All [the script] says is 'they stab Caesar' or 'Caesar dies' or 'They fight,'" he said. "Everything else is then brought on by the imagination of the fight director and ... the actors."

McFarland is careful to note that stage violence should have a purposeā€""it always comes down to what drives the play"ā€"but finds that the script's vagueness about the fight scenes was liberating as he determined how to expand those two-word instructions.

"It's amazing to see how you go from 'Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?' to 'Et tu, Brute!' then 'fall, Caesar,'" he said. "There's nothing between there but Casca's line, but in those few lines is the major turn of the play."

Besides acting as fight director, McFarland is playing the titular character in "Julius Caesar," which opened last weekend and runs until Aug. 15. Tickets are $17-25. For more information, call 445-4440 or see the Festival Theatre Web site at www.oakparkfestival.com.

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