When Douglas Rowe first came to the Laguna Playhouse and Marthella Randall roped him into doing “The Happy Time,” she also mentioned how much she liked George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and how much she wanted to direct it.
That was in 1962, Rowe recalled the other day. Over the next decade she kept mentioning it to him, he said, “until finally about 16 years ago, we both decided: ‘Okay, maybe we’ll do it when I’m the right age for it.’ ”
Now, at 52, Rowe figures that he has bobbed and weaved long enough. He will play Caesar in the historical drama that Shaw regarded as his antidote to the portrait Shakespeare drew in “Julius Caesar.” That political melodrama, in Shaw’s view, reduced the Roman emperor to a “silly braggart” who hasn’t a line “even worthy of a Tammany boss.”
“Caesar and Cleopatra"--with Randall directing and Lillian Helm playing Cleopatra--premieres Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Moulton Theatre as the opener of the Playhouse’s 70th season. It will run through Sept. 30.
“Outside of the demands of Shaw’s language, Caesar is not a particularly showy role,” said Rowe, who has been the prime artistic force at the Playhouse for nearly three decades--from 1964 to 1966 as managing director and, after stints in New York and elsewhere, from 1976 on as executive or artistic director.
“Certainly Caesar is less theatrical than Henry II in ‘Beckett,’ which I did for my 40th birthday, and Henry II in ‘Lion in Winter,’ which I did for my 50th,” the lean, graying Paterson, N.J., native continued. “I’m trying to play him as down-to-earth as possible.”
While not considered among the greatest of Shaw’s plays--unlike “Man and Superman,” which opens Friday, Sept. 7, at South Coast Repertory--"Caesar and Cleopatra” nonetheless revolves around a great “man of ideas” meant to be seen as a paradigm of political behavior. Though Caesar is a pragmatist, he is also an honorable man.
The play, written in 1898, is “meatier than usual for community theater,” Rowe said, adding that Shaw’s occupation of Orange County’s two largest theaters at the same time is “purely coincidental"--unlike Caesar’s occupation of Egypt.
The greatest challenge in preparing the role, Rowe maintained, has been to reconcile what he knows from his research about Caesar’s historical relationship with Cleopatra and the arrangement Shaw invented for the play.
For instance, the real Caesar is reputed to have fathered Cleopatra’s child, Caesarion (dubbed Ptolemy XIV), with whom she ruled Egypt for a time. But in “Caesar and Cleopatra,” there isn’t the slightest hint of a romantic relationship, let alone a sexual attraction. Shaw’s Caesar is strictly a middle-aged father figure, more or less amused by Cleopatra, whom he instructs to be a queen by setting an example in the art of government.
Moreover, when Cleopatra meets Caesar at the beginning of the play, “she’s this 16-year-old little teenybopper sitting on a Sphinx,” Rowe said. “In reality, by the time they met she was already this Amazon woman of 22 or 23 who’d been out in the desert with about 2,000 troops fighting her brother’s army.”
Rowe tries to appear on the Playhouse stage every other year or so. Since 1978, in addition to “Beckett” and “The Lion in Winter,” he has starred in “Kean,” “Sly Fox,” “Thornhill” and “Play It Again, Sam.”
A professional actor who obtained his Equity card when he was still a 21-year-old college undergraduate, Rowe came to Southern California looking for acting work in 1962. He had spent his high school years in Newburyport, Mass., and had attended Bates College in Lewiston, Me. (after turning down a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame University).
Newly arrived in Los Angeles, Rowe supported himself as a substitute teacher in Watts and as a hospital night clerk while living downtown on 3rd Street, one floor beneath a brothel. (“I was so naive, I kept wondering why the elevator was busy at 2 a.m.”) After a year, he’d managed to land one acting job on a TV series. (“I stood by a water cooler, and my sole line was: ‘Any story in this, Mac?’ ”)
So Rowe didn’t have much to lose by taking a role at the amateur Playhouse. He even had $100 in gas money to gain. Soon he began appearing regularly. Within a few months, he heard that the managing director’s job was open. Rowe applied--along with eight other candidates who had directed at the Playhouse--and was invited to stage a piece to be done at the Santa Ana Play Festival.
“I chose the first act of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral,’ ” he recounted. “Nobody understood it, which was great. But I said you’re going to have to make your decision about the job before the festival because I don’t want it to hinge on whether we win. So they decided. We didn’t win. And I got the job.”
He began his tenure by directing “Rashomon,” staged “Twelfth Night” to open the 1964-65 season and made three prescient casting choices for the plays that followed: Mike Farrell, Harrison Ford and Teri Ralston, all of whom were young unknowns.
Rowe cast Farrell in a supporting role in “The Skin of Our Teeth,” then starred him in “A Thousand Clowns” and--with co-star Ralston making her Playhouse debut--in “The Fantastiks.” Ford appeared as the lead in “John Brown’s Body” opposite Rowe, who played the other lead and also directed the production.
“That was Harrison’s first taste of theater,” Rowe said. “He came straight from Ripon College in Wisconsin and had never done anything before. But he was a natural. The people from Columbia Pictures saw him here and immediately after the show signed him as a contract player.”
Sitting under a tree in the sloping back yard of the rented, wood-shingle house he has called home for the past eight years, Rowe reminisced about that period. His wife, Katherine (whom he met 12 years ago in “Play It Again, Sam”) was pitching a tent with their two sons, William, 7, and Jackson, 5, for a camp-out party to celebrate William’s birthday.
Why has he chosen to remain at the Playhouse, which for all its size and reputation limits itself to amateur fare? When the talent is good, after all, it leaves. Farrell left. Ford left. Ralston left.
Rowe paused to look around--at the woodpile where he chops his winter fuel, at the house whose interior walls are crowded with huge hunting trophies, at the fruit trees bearing lemons, peaches, cherries and avocados. “I love this place,” he said. “I guess if I couldn’t live like this I’d find it hard to justify. We’ve had some magnificent years here.”
Even so, in 1970 when Rowe was still single, he too departed for what he thought would be L.A.'s greener pastures. And for a while they were. He made so many TV commercials, he said, that he couldn’t go anywhere without people stopping him to ask where they’d seen him.
By 1972 he’d also made enough money to take a trip around the world. The world traveler then moved to Vermont and commuted to New York for TV work. Meanwhile, he began to make inroads on the stage. Joseph Papp hired him to understudy the lead in “The Black Picture Show.” Two days after it opened at the Public Theatre in New York, Papp told him: “You’re on.”
“I’ll never forget it,” Rowe said. “We never could rehearse, and I had these long speeches where I had to peel an orange, light a cigar, pour a drink, all of that stuff. Well, I was word perfect.
“At the opening (curtain) I had to walk straight down the center. The house was packed. I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it the way that guy’s been doing it.’ And as I passed this actress--it was Carole Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter--I put my hand right on her behind. I was supposed to be a miserable Hollywood producer, after all.
“Well, every actor on that stage saw me do it, and the whole play went ‘Boom!’ It was like we all took a quarter-degree turn and re-did the play. Joe Papp came by afterwards and called me on stage and put his arm around me and said, ‘This is the reason I chose theater.’ ”
The next morning in Papp’s office was better yet, Rowe recalled. Papp asked him to do Brutus in “Julius Caesar” for a New York Shakespeare Festival production. Richard Dreyfuss was going to do Cassius. “Papp gave me the script to read,” Rowe said, “and I thought my life had turned.”
Then it all came unraveled. Dreyfuss was signed for Neil Simon’s movie, “The Goodbye Girl,” which he went off to do. Papp canceled “Julius Caesar.”
Though Rowe subsequently got an original play, “The Dream Watcher” with Eva La Gallienne, the cancellation was crushing.
“It really broke my heart,” Rowe recalled. “I had done my college acting thesis on Brutus. I knew the part inside out. I could have killed them.”
Back in California for a visit, Rowe accepted an invitation to direct at the Playhouse again. It proved to be such a rewarding experience, he said, that it sealed his decision to come back on a permanent basis in 1976.
“Some friends of mine have always accused me of being afraid of success,” Rowe observed. “I don’t know if there is an element of truth in that or not. But I do know that I’ve developed a great love for this community and a very strong belief in the concept of community theater.”
The community-theater movement, which was born during the 1920s, represents “our true national theater,” he explained, if only because “more plays are done on community stages and more people go to them than anywhere else,” including the 67 professional nonprofit companies represented by the League of Resident Theaters.
Indeed, the American Assn. of Community Theaters has about 2,500 members, Rowe noted, and its “guesstimate” is that at least 5,000 amateur troupes are in operation across the country.
“Everybody talks about the professional resident theater, which was spawned as a movement in the 1960s,” he said. “It is now maturing into adulthood, and I am all for it. But community theater is really the only open-door theater we have precisely because it is avocational.”
People with little acting experience have the chance to get up on stage in these amateur venues to discover their talent, regardless of how much they have. That is all to the good, he believes, because it is virtually impossible to do anywhere else.
“I bet that most professionals began one way or other in community theaters,” Rowe said. “And I bet they’re grateful for the experience, whether they stayed for a long time or moved on quickly.”
Such fervent advocacy and his starring role in “Caesar and Cleopatra” notwithstanding, Rowe’s own career has taken something of a turn in recent months away from the Playhouse toward other projects.
For instance, since the hiring of Richard A. Stein as executive director earlier this year, and even before, Rowe has been freeing himself of administrative responsibilities and has committed himself to television again, this time with movies.
He recently made “Incident at Dark River,” which aired on TNT in December, and “Incident in Lincoln Bluff,” which aired on CBS in January. Only a few days ago he completed three weeks of shooting in San Diego for a substantial role in “Armed Response,” which is to air on the USA cable channel next December.
“I got to play a killer for the first time in my career,” he said. “It’s a good part. They’ve got me threaded all the way through the movie with about four or five speaking scenes.”
But none of that threatens his artistic commitment to the Playhouse, Rowe insisted. He is already preparing to direct “Painting Churches” there later this season.
George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra.”
Through Sept. 30, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
The Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach.
Take Laguna Freeway going west or Coast Highway going north or south to Broadway which feeds into Laguna Canyon Drive. Theater is next to the grounds of the Festival of the Arts.
$11 to $18.
Where to call