THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Actor Plays Heavies, Heroes With Equal Ease

It's a long way from playing Zorro's arch nemesis on television to playing Rome's would-be savior on stage.

But John Hertzler, who has the role of Brutus in Shakespeare Orange County's current production of "Julius Caesar," appears to have made the leap without missing a beat.

That may not be surprising, though.

The tall, blond, bearded actor possesses the handsome, strapping, faintly ominous look of someone who can play heavies or heroes with equal conviction.

Hertzler can also recall giving up college football for theater without so much as a blink.

"I just kind of stopped by the drama department one day," he recounted in a recent interview. "They were auditioning for 'Marat/Sade.' They looked me over, saw I was a big guy and said, 'Hmmm, we could use you.' That did it."

It must be said, however, that Hertzler didn't believe he was making much of a sacrifice. He was an outside linebacker in Lewisburg, Pa., for Bucknell University's football team during the era of the Vietnam War.

"Outside linebacker means I had absolutely no athletic talent," he explained. "And it was demonstration season in those days. We spent more time driving to Washington to be in the peace marches than we did on the field. Who cared about football? Nobody."

In any case, before Hertzler ever began playing the Alcalde (Mayor)--his long-running role in "The New Zorro" on the Family Channel--he played leads in the classics at many of the nation's top theaters.

To name just a few, he was Richard in "Richard II" at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre; Pentheus in "The Bacchae" on Broadway; Banquo in "Macbeth" at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre; Jason in "Medea" at the Cincinnati Playhouse.

Hertzler's flair for the dramatic certainly was evident when he showed up before a performance at the Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange on a hot, sunny day last week to talk about Brutus. The actor wore black sunglasses, a black T-shirt, black tuxedo pants and maroon braces. He even carried a black leather briefcase.

The intense sartorial drama was matched by his dark analysis of Brutus' motives, which he infers from Roman history by way of Plutarch and applies to the text of "Julius Caesar" with the skill of a psychologist.

"My feeling is that Brutus is a man adrift within himself before the play begins," said Hertzler, a former Latin student who can still recite verbatim large chunks of Cicero's fourth oration against Catiline.

"Shakespeare starts the action of the play soon after the civil war in which Caesar has defeated Pompey. Brutus and Cassius were concerned about Caesar's authoritarian leanings. They fought on Pompey's side because they were interested in maintaining the Republic. But Pompey was killed, and they were defeated.

"Plutarch's story is that Brutus disappeared from his camp and turned up at Caesar's tent asking to be forgiven. None of that is in the play. According to Plutarch, Caesar did forgive him. So at the point where the play begins, if Brutus could look at himself in a mirror, he must be wondering what his life is all about."

Hertzler reasons that, like the Kennedy name today, the name of Marcus Brutus in Rome signaled great celebrity tinged with gossip. He was the last of an illustrious family that helped found the Republic, yet he had gone over to Caesar's side.

"So what troubles him is this," Hertzler said. "Not only does Caesar know what he has done--asking to be let onto the winning team--but Brutus must be wondering who else knows. He must be wondering who holds his reputation in question.

"Therefore, when Cassius approaches him to save the Republic with the assassination plot against Caesar, I think Brutus agrees that something must be done, partly because he needs to resurrect his own sense of self-honor."

In the end, of course, it is Shakespeare's insights that hold sway. And Hertzler himself underscores the point.

"The bottom line in the theater is the writer," he said. "As Gielgud always said, you can't make something out of a piece of literature that isn't really there."

And what's the bottom line in reality?

Said Hertzler, who recently bought a house in Tujunga: " 'Zorro.' It pays the mortgage."

* Shakespeare Orange County's production of "Julius Caesar" continues through Sept. 11 at the Waltmar Theatre, 310 E. Palm St., Orange. Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m. $21 to $23. (714) 744-7016.

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