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Julius Caesar

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 12, 2017

Elizabeth Marvel and the Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which opened tonight at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park, has been given a contemporary makeover by the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis, who has shaped a modern-dress production that bounces wildly from downright silly to deadly serious as it explores the play's themes of ambition, honor, and the power of language to exhort the rabble into mob action.

As a writer living in an age of monarchy, Shakespeare was remarkably adroit at obliquely exposing the treacherous failings of rulers for an audience of commoners, free thinkers, and royalists alike. But Eustis has unconstrainedly fashioned the play for what is pretty much exclusively an audience of like-minded individuals whose political views fall to the left of center. He abandons any pretense of subtlety in a bread-and-circuses approach, in which, as has been widely publicized, he has taken his cue from the likes of "Saturday Night Live." The Caesar he offers up appears in the unmistakable guise of the current President of the United States; the only thing he might have done to make it more blatant would have been to hire Alec Baldwin to play the role.

Eustis focuses on the obvious trappings associated with Donald Trump to give us the stuff of spoof, through a significantly modified line of dialog; a trophy wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko), who speaks with a Slavic accent; and depictions of Caesar texting. And in case we miss the point, David Rockwell's scenic design incorporates banners displaying images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and the U. S. Constitution, and provides the Senate with an American Flag prominently on display.

To his credit, the man portraying Caesar, Gregg Henry, mostly forgoes buffoonery, but instead shows us an assertive, manipulative, and self-defined Caesar. When he goes before the Senate, against Calpurnia's premonitions and the warning ("Beware the Ides of March!") of the soothsayer (Mayaa Boateng), it is with the certitude of someone who takes it as his due that he ought to be crowned emperor.

If you think about the Caesar/Trump connection, you'll understand that the famous assassination scene that takes place in the Senate, a bloody one, indeed, has attracted some degree of controversy (enough so that Delta Airlines and Bank of America have announced they are withdrawing sponsorship). But dramatically, that scene and everything that came before serve merely as prologue to all that follows. With Caesar gone, the system of governance that has held everything together is on the verge of collapse. The heart of the play lies in determining the outcome of the struggle between two opposing sides. On one side is the confederation of conspirators who carried out the assassination; their de facto leader is Brutus (Corey Stoll), the one man who is generally seen as being motivated by his love for Rome and its people. The other side is represented by Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel), a close ally of Caesar, and by Caesar's nephew and heir apparent, Octavius (Robert Gilbert).

Dramatically, the most compelling part of the production comes in the scenes that immediately follow the assassination. These encompass two sets of speeches. In one, Brutus addresses the gathering crowds of confused and restless Romans to assure them of his motives and to lay out his argument against the threat to the Republic by the would-be emperor. In the other, which includes Marc Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech, Antony manages to turn the tide in favor of Caesar and against the conspirators. Both of these speeches retain the power to startle because of their capacity to stir up the mob. Eustis has packed the outdoor, stadium-like Delacorte with everyone in the company who is not on stage, and they hoot and yell and generally cause a near-riot, first in support of Brutus and then, later, in opposition. The momentum carries through for much of the rest of the play, which includes random killings and police actions that suggest exactly what it might be like to be in a country that suddenly finds itself without a clear and strong leader at its head.

In order to retain its explosive energy, the play is presented with a somewhat condensed script, performed at high speed in a single act running two hours. Throughout, there is a lot of dashing about and few pauses in the action. Once the Trump lampoon is abandoned, the tone becomes more serious. Corey Stoll is the most centered of the performers, giving us a Brutus who truly agonizes over his part in the conspiracy and over the future of the Republic. Elizabeth Marvel is a non-traditional but interesting choice to play Marc Antony. The mob-turning speech, which she delivers with a crowd-charming Southern accent, is spot-on perfect. The rest of the large cast, which includes the always excellent John Douglas Thompson as the hotheaded Cassius, is quite strong.

It is hard to say how Julius Caesar would have fared without the silliness in the first half of the production, but the cautionary tale against the possibility of anarchy comes through loud and clear, regardless. Shakespeare's brilliance as a dramatist once again shines through no matter how much smoke and mirrors and Trumpery are thrown his way.

Julius Caesar
Through June 18
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Please note: Julius Caesar contains the use of violence, nudity, live gunshot sounds, strobe, herbal cigarettes, haze, and fog.
Free tickets are distributed on each performance day via the free lines at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. People waiting for free tickets must line up along the path designated by The Public Theater staff and The Parks Department. Free tickets are distributed at 12PM (noon) every day that there is a public performance. Performance days will vary from week to week, so be sure to check the performance calendar. Please remember that Central Park does not officially open until 6AM. Each person (age 5+) may receive up to two (2) tickets, until we run out. There are separate lines for Senior Accessibility for senior citizens (65+) and ADA Accessibility for patrons with disabilities (attestation required). Seat locations are distributed randomly; not based on a person's position in the line. If you do not receive tickets, you may join the stand-by line after the final ticket is distributed for that day's performance. To allow as many different people as possible to attend performances throughout the summer, each person will be limited to receiving TWO (2) free tickets to TWO (2) PERFORMANCES of each production.

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