JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare, directed by Louis Scheeder; music, William Penn; set and lighting, Hugh Lester; costumes, Bary Allen Odom; fights, Mark Donohue. With Earle Edgerton, Ralph Cosham, David Cromwell, Terry Hinz, Peter Webster, Paul Norwood, Sherry Skinker and Franchelle Stewart Dorn.

At the Folger Theatre through Dec. 6.

The Folger Theatre Group, sad to relate, has not come to perform "Julius Caesar," but to bury it.

Rarely has the company subjected Shakespeare to such unrelenting bombast or such tortured histrionics as it did last night, the opening performance of its 1981-82 season. The production also marks the final effort of the Folger's long-time producing director, Louis Scheeder, who submitted his resignation last month, citing budgetary differences as his reason. Well, it is surely a consolation to no one, but not even a king's -- or an emperor's -- ransom would make much difference in this instance.

Shakespeare's tragedy about the dark, devious ways of politics is flagrantly miscast, from the grandest Roman to the humblest page. The sweeping oratory is rent to shreds, as if it were so much cheap cloth. The noble sentiments are carried to the point of parody, and sometimes beyond. And the fickle masses, who ebb and flow in the background like a treacherous rip tide, consist of a handful of supernumeraries, who appear to have been pulled in off the street.

Scholars have long disputed who is the play's chief character. Is it Julius Caesar, who, although he meets his death midway through the evening, nonetheless continues to inhabit the collective conscience of his assassins? Is it Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all"? The lean and hungry Cassius? Or Marcus Antonius, who, after all, gets the ringing "Friends, Romans and countrymen" speech? They are all splendid roles and the play's strength may just reside in the fact that Shakespeare spread the dramatic opportunities around.

There are very few splendid actors at the Folger, however, and the floundering is painful to behold. Earle Edgerton is certainly the last performer one would think of to play Julius Caesar, looking, as he does in his pumpkin-shaped pants, like Don Quixote at the foot of the windmill. (The production, it should be noted, dispenses with the usual togas in favor of some very fancy Elizabethan garb, designed by Bary Allen Odom.) Worse, Edgerton's manner is that of a prissy country schoolmaster, and when he fulminates against his assassins, one suspects it is primarily because they have neglected to turn in their homework. Mighty Caesar, indeed!

The role of Brutus falls to Ralph Cosham, and while the character's motives are lofty (he sees Caesar as a usurper of Rome's democratic freedoms), Cosham is oppressively dour and priggish about things. David Cromwell makes a very bland Cassius, a small blessing given the dramatic excesses on display elsewhere, but also a considerable waste of a rich part. That leaves Peter Webster, as Marcus Antonius, to carry what's left of the production. Call him butterfingers. He rants and raves, bellows, sobs and screams. In the process, he somehow manages to communicate the distinct impression of Clint Eastwood playing Shakespeare.

If the play has an abundance of men's roles, it is downright skimpy on female parts. And yet the only moments of credibility in the Folger production are provided by the handsome Franchelle Stewart Dorn, as Brutus' mate, and Sherry Skinker, fragile and distraught, as Calphurnia, Caesar's wife. Of course, one wonders just how Caesar wooed and won such a fine speciman of a woman, but in the scheme of things, that is a very minor question.

The Folger, it seems to me, is confronted with a far bigger problem at the outset of this, its 12th season. The acting company simply has to be regenerated. It may be that the Folger's new producing director, John Neville-Andrews, has the fresh eye and the bold attack it takes to shake the resident actors out of a deep rut. Perhaps an infusion of new actors is called for, as well. But the old patterns, patterns based on familiarity and comfort, can not continue.

It is only natural in a resident company that each actor should have his moment center stage. The tendency is to reward those who have been loyal over the seasons with a juicy dramatic role now and again, even if the fit isn't quite right. Generous as such thinking may be, it's also dangerous. Faced with a $400,000 budget cut, the Folger has infinitely less money to spend this season on sets and costumes. More than ever, its fortunes will rise or fall on the quality of the acting.

And with "Julius Caesar," they are plummeting.