Ah, the second installment of a season’s worth of Shakespeare in the Park. It usually has a note of sadness in it for me because that means summer’s ending, but when it is a well-done production, it is a balm to the wound! Such comfort was found at the Delacorte this past weekend in their staging of Julius Caesar.
As always with the Delacorte, I must first talk about the set. One of the best qualities of this theatre is its almost magical ability to be completely transformed for every play. The set for this production is reminiscent of a construction site, with it’s leaning concrete slabs and exposed scaffolding. Dominating this background are two huge objects, the head of Caesar stage right, hoisted by a crane and swaying strangely, slowly, in the wind, and an equally large hand on the opposite side with a chunk of cement missing from the wrist and a rope and pulley thrown across it. In line with the best known image in the play, the stage floor and some of the “walls” are painted with an appropriate jagged edged, blood-red paint. Red ribbons thrown in the opening further foreshadow drips of blood, and I wonder if I am alone in noticing almost Christ like imagery in some of the points. For example, the missing chunk of concrete was taken out of the wrist, and the palm of the giant hand had bloody stains. (Look for how they get there - it is an interesting bit so casual as to seem accidental, but so powerful in its symbolism it is a moment of subtle brilliance). Also the head seems to have remnants of blood dripping from the temples, and one angular wall bears a roman numeral, which looked strangely like a nail print.
The main characters, Caesar, Cassius , Brutus, and Antony, were well played by David McCallum, Dennis Boutsikaris, Jamey Sheridan, and Jeffrey Wright, respectively. I did have my moments of doubt about some of them, however. While I immediately enjoyed Boutsikaris’s performance, at first Sheridan’s delivery was stilted and almost “Shatner-esque” (picture James T. Kirk in the role, if you will) and Wright’s first scene seemed lacking in passion, but I guess it just took the actors time to warm up, because a short while into the performance things began to flow. I know for myself that in the past I’d had a simplistic view of the conflict of this play as one of “bloodthirstypowerhungrytyrant versus the democracy” but this production really brought to light the more soulful dilemma of a man having to choose between his friend and his freedom, and the irony that the man he fought with is now the man he must fight against.
Two interesting directing choices were made with the large group scenes, involving the “masses” and the fighting armies. To portray the mindless, peer-pressure, mob mentality of the citizens of Rome, the director chose to have the crowd speak their lines in chorus fashion, and they were also all dressed in subtle shades of blue, giving them almost a sea-like quality which further enhanced the feeling that they were all one body. The battle scenes were more like dances choreographed with quarter-staffs, moving to the accompaniment of the stage left percussionist (a staple at the Delacorte, it seems). The “fight-dances” were played out through a haze of lights and smoke giving pleasure in both sight and sound.
One of the best things about watching Shakespeare is hearing that familiar line which has become part of out everyday rhetoric, and this play is full of such lines, from those dreaded words every student has memorized, “Friend, Romans, Countrymen…” to “Et tu, Brute?” and “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” and so on, to the point where the original meaning of some lines has been lost in our modern usage. For example, Casca’s line “It was Greek to me,” drew a big laugh from the crowd because it was so recognizable. However, in the play the line is literal. I must add that Casca, played foppishly by Ritchie Coster, gave some welcome comic relief.
My only complaint in this production comes from the staging of Caesar’s death scene. It took far to many stabs for him to even stagger. It was like watching Superman, and then when he did fall, he fell on his back, which was problematic for the bit of stage business where the conspirators had to wash their hands in his blood. They needed Caesar’s body to block the audience’s view of the blood bags. I don’t know if this happens every night, or if it were just a singular mistake, but after landing on his back McCallum awkwardly flipped over onto his side. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance as a whole. I’m sure there are those who disliked it, but, to paraphrase another famous line, for them, perhaps“The fault lies not in the stars but in themselves?”