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`Julius Caesar' as showcase for stars

The six-year marathon called ``See All of Shakespeare,'' now in its early stages at the Public Theater, seems determined to make news in every new installment. It leaped to a rousing and rhythmic start by setting ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' in a Brazilian forest. Now, in its second outing, it's relying on sheer star-power to make an impression.

Stuart Vaughan's staging of ``Julius Caesar'' features what might be the most diverse collection of Big Names to cluster around this play since 1953, when Marlon Brando headed the cast of Hollywood's most famous version.

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In this case, though, making news and making good Shakespeare aren't the same thing. One can't help being curious about how Al Pacino would play Mark Antony and what Martin Sheen's approach to Brutus would be. It's even conceivable that someone, somewhere, has been itching to find out how Edward Herrmann might interpret Cassius. While the answers to these questions are available on the Public/Newman stage, they turn out to be pedestrian enough - in most cases - to make sitting through this ``Caesar'' a dubiously rewarding task.

Not that every performance is a dud. Mr. Herrmann makes a strong and engaging Cassius, and there's a splendid portrayal of Caesar by John McMartin, always a performer of uncommon presence. These are not the play's most important characters, though, and Mr. Vaughan's production badly misses them (and their actors) when they're off stage.

We see more of Mr. Sheen, and while he's a capable Brutus, there's too little fire - as they say of today's politicians - in his belly. He's a Brutus to stir mild interest, not to galvanize the emotions and crystallize some of the drama's profoundest ironies.

Mr. Pacino seems to be trying several different tactics as he meanders through Antony's lines. He begins with a weirdly metronomic delivery; gathers a lot of steam in his funeral oration; then fades into a style that at times seems almost offhand.

Pacino can command the stage with fierce tenacity when he really wants to, and there's no question about the energy, skill, and conviction that go into his best moments (mostly the funeral speech) here. But he seems uncomfortably far from home during most of the drama, falling back on mechanical gestures and unpredictable phrasing. Like the production itself, his work has fascinating high points but doesn't add up to much.

The large supporting cast is generally adequate, sometimes less than that. Bob Shaw's sets succeed in framing the performances without stealing attention from them, but their modesty doesn't suggest the grandeur that was Rome - in fact, the place looks kind of tacky. Lindsay W. Davis designed the serviceable costumes. Lee Hoiby composed the incidental music, which is at its best when Wade Raley (as the servant Lucius) plays a harp and sings. Presented by Joseph Papp, the show continues through April 3.

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