IT WAS ELIZABETHAN, all right. It was Elizabet[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] You remember about the groundlings. These were the people who stood in what is now the orchestra but used to be the original standing room, and they tended to get impatient during the long-winded speeches, so Shakespeare would throw in some excitement every few lines to keep them quiet, like a murder or a clown act or a war.
It worked. It worked again at the Folger Theater, where more than 200 schoolchildren saw a matinee of "Julius Caesar" the other day. They came from Trinity Episcopal High in Richmond, National Cathedral School and George Washington Junior High in Alexandria.
The first surprise was the costumes. "Caesar" is customarily done in bed-sheets. The Folger, with its painstaking Elizabethan-style stage and exquisite period costumery, is nothing if not faithful to the Bard and his times. The second surprise was the noise. Actors rushed all over the place, shouting as actors will, and creating excitement. In the big Forum scene, citizens in buckram pantaloons actually ran down the aisles and shouted shouts like "Peace, ho!" and "The will! The will!" and "O piteous spectacle!"
And the groundlings did just what groundlings have done through the ages: they kept their mouths shut and their eyes wide open. Ingenious.
The show was sold out, as is the whole series of low-priced matinees for this play. But Bruce Wharton at the box office said the Folger will happily negotiate a price for groups at the regular evening performances. Meanwhile, "The Tempest," March 2 through April 25, is wide open, and so is "The Comedy of Errors," May 2 through July 11.
During the Warner Theater run of "Othello" some patrons had complained of unruly students laughing and whistling, but this group was as good as gold. Well, silver. A couple of times teachers had to lean over and shush some whisperers, and once a spitball flew down from the balcony, barely missing the freshly killed Caesar (who to the wonderment of all kept his unblinking dead eyes open for at least five minutes), and one embarrassing belch of laughter escaped when the assassins drew an extra "Ouch!" from the punctured tyrant.
But most of the time the audience was just fine. When Brutus threatened to "bear my naked breast," they tittered. When the murderers held up bloody hands, a murmured "eeeugh" pulsed through the hall. When bodies slumped to the floor, everyone concentrated on them, watching for signs of breathing. In a word, they played their part as groundlings perfectly.
At the end, everyone got a big hand, but the screams were reserved for handsome Peter Webster as Antony and David Wano as Lucius, servant to Brutus, who looked to be about the same age as the audience.
Shakespeare would have loved it.