Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set design by Ralph Funicello. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin. Original music and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Fight Director Robin H. McFarquhar. Special effects design by Gregory Meeh. Wig and hair design by Charles Lapointe. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Dramaturge Dakin Matthews. Vocal Consultant Elizabeth Smith. Cast: Denzel Washington with Colm Feore, Jessica Hecht, William Sadler, Tamara Tunie, Eamonn Walker, Jack Willis, Stephen Lee Anderson, Jacquline Antaramian, Kelly AuCoin, Ed Onipede Blunt, David Cromwell, Keith Davis, Peter Jay Fernandez, Seth Fisher, Effie Johnson, Maurience Jones, Ty Jones, Aaron Kroh, Quentin Maré, Christopher McHale, Mark Mineart, Dan Moran, Jason Manuel Olazábal, Howard W. Overshown, Patrick Page, Kurt Rhoads, John Douglas Thompson, Richard Topol, Henry Woronicz.
If an audience comes to the theater expecting something very specific, it's best not to take too long to give them what they want. So it's not surprising that, minutes before his first spoken scene in the new Broadway production of Julius Caesar, Denzel Washington appears from the wings and proceeds downstage to bask in the adoration of his waiting public before the play's real action begins.
During this brief moment, Washington owns the Belasco Theatre. As he purposefully stares out over the audience, his square chin and determined stance imbue in him a sense of respect, obligation, and command. Since Washington's last Broadway appearance in 1988 (in Checkmates), he's won two Oscars and a host of other awards for his film work; it seems evident from the beginning of Julius Caesar that Washington isn't stunt casting, and that this is a deserving homecoming for a man who's been away too long.
Nothing else Washington does, however, lives up to his first imposing impression. When he's forced to rely on a different set of acting and vocal muscles than he's accustomed to using, he becomes every bit the bland, invisible presence that experienced theatregoers have come to fear of Hollywood stars onstage, and that only the rare one (Hugh Jackman, anyone?) is able to defy. Despite playing a great role (Marcus Brutus) in a classic drama, Washington might as well be walking and talking his way through a February Sweeps episode of an NBC hourlong drama.
As Brutus is the central character in this play - one of Shakespeare's most baldly political - this is a problem from the outset, as we must implicitly understand Brutus's confliction about whether or not to kill the new leader Caesar, about how far is too far to go after what he believes in. Washington is less one-color in his portrayal than he is unwilling or unable to demonstrate his ability to paint with a wide variety of hues. You get the gist of Brutus's problems and solutions throughout, but he emerges as more a faded sepia-toned photograph than a vivid, realistic portrait.
Yet the happy irony is that the production surrounding Washington is of the eye-opening, electrifying kind that you long for at any Shakespeare play today. Director Daniel Sullivan has created here the most captivating Shakespeare production I've seen since Lincoln Center's Henry IV in 2003. As Jack O'Brien did with that production, Sullivan has found a way to wrap all of the topical gravity of Julius Caesar in a smart-looking, smart-sounding, and energetic package that mostly lives up to the hype surrounding Washington. That's no small achievement.
That's not to say that Sullivan's production bursts with originality: It's set in something akin to the present day, with costume designer Jess Goldstein providing crisp business suits and military fatigues as appropriate, and set designer Ralph Funicello setting the action amid the burned-out buildings and streets of a contemporary war zone; all this has been done before, and given the United States's current political climate, in which unrest often seems to rival Caesar's Rome, it's hardly unexpected.
But few modern takes on Shakespeare so strive to create a believable world. Here, the sounds of joyous chanting give way to the echoing hails of gunfire, storms ravage barren city streets no less destructively than explosions, fires burning in oil barrels cast shadows from which devious figures emerge to carry out their deadly business. (The wonderfully evocative lighting is by Mimi Jordan Sherin; the superb original music and sound design is by Dan Moses Schreier.) This is a broken, lawless, desolate place waiting for a unifying hero to bring it back to life; the stage-filling cast of 30 only serves to underscore this need. A strong Brutus could capitalize on this, and without one, Sullivan's conception feels incomplete.
Even so, it's impossible to argue with the vulpine ferocity of Colm Feore's Cassius, who works to bring Brutus into the anti-Caesar insurgency. Or the vaguely comic pretensions of Jack Willis's Casca, another conspirator. Or, for that matter, of William Sadler's Caesar, played as a charismatic, intelligent ruler who's let his recent political and popular victories go just a bit too much to his head. Even the tiny lead female roles are amply filled: Jessica Hecht is an angsty vision as Brutus's wife Portia, and Tamara Tunie's desperate superstition comes through beautifully in Caesar's wife Calpurnia.
Otherwise, only Eamonn Walker, as Brutus's rival Mark Antony, fails to live up to the ensemble's sky-high standards. He lacks Washington's personal magnetism and sense of occasion, and seems so uncomfortable onstage it's difficult to accept him as a serious threat to Brutus's power grab. His bug-eyed, jutted-lip acting style is less appropriate for Shakespearean tragedy than a sitcom on the WB Television Network; the scene in which he turns the public against Brutus is particularly over-emoted and cringeworthy.
But it, like the rest of the production, is something Sullivan has fully realized. It's set in a theater, before a curtain, with the action extending into the boxes and even the aisles of the theater, drawing the audience even further into the play's world. It's a theatrical gamble that doesn't always pay off, but it does here; Sullivan has so engulfed us in the atmosphere of his setting and story, we've felt like a part of the play all along. This simply confirms what we already knew.
Will Sullivan likewise convince audiences coming just to see Washington of theatre's transporting power? That's harder to say. If people are determined to love a star, they'll find a way, and the rest of the production - regardless of quality - won't matter to them much. Most serious theatregoers, however, are unlikely to find Washington worth writing home about; everything else in this Julius Caesar certainly is.