First, necessarily, comments on the controversy: Theater is a living, breathing art form. It has always reflected and reacted to its time. Currently, LGBT and apocalyptic themes are joined by a proliferation of stories with immigrant, and Middle East discourse/illumination. Religious freedom, women’s rights and segregation have ruled the stage in waves.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, in this, the Public Theater’s current iteration of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the central character is meant to physically resemble Donald Trump and his wife to sound like Melania. Why not?! The classic drama has been produced with Caesar portrayed as Mussolini in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist version, an unnamed African dictator for that of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, in 2012, President Obama at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. None of these interpretations provoked protests. That original text resonates in each rendition is sufficient reason to restage the piece.
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Marvel
Oscar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, chose Caesar for relevance and, in his own words, as “a warning parable.” This examination of how far a people may go to protect democracy from a charismatic demagogue clearly shows radical consequences of anarchistic violence rather than advocating it. A staff driven by greed and personal advancement (sound familiar?) gets just desserts. Brutus is the only patriotic, if misguided conspirator, a fact acknowledged but not celebrated. Fatalism sweeps the stage like sirocco. Chaos ensues.
The play itself is problematic. While much proves as lively as it is timeless – “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” is from bona fied text (the audience laughs), a long, dense scene in which Brutus and Cassius disagree on plans could put anyone to sleep. Attention dips for a time after Marc Antony’s spectacular death bed (here, a gurney) oration.
Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson; Nikki M. James and Corey Stoll
Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry, with inadequate bombastic presence) greets adoring Rome with wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko, palpably seductive; great Slavic accent) preening by his side. At one point, he bats her away, a gesture that could easily have been played in reverse had the director wanted to be more partisan. Though he refuses a crown, it’s obvious Caesar’s fingers itch.
Fearing the loss of democracy, members of The Senate plot assassination at the instigation of Brutus (Corey Stoll, who underplays so much, it feels like we’re watching a disgruntled bureaucrat, not a soldier or statesman.) “He scorns the base degrees by which he did ascend,” Brutus declares of Caesar. (Currently applicable?)
Of this bunch, Teagle F. Bougere’s Casca is solidly credible and John Douglas Thompson (Cassius) provides one of two masterful characterizations every time he’s onstage. Thompson is vital, impassioned; his voice deep and invested, phrasing accessible yet poetic, presence shimmers with power. A soldier to his toes.
Corey Stoll and The Company
Conspirators come and go at Brutus’s home prompting questioning concern by his wife Portia (an excellent Nikki M. James) who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her husband into telling her what’s going on. Calpurnia almost has better luck when, fearing the portent of a dream, she attempts to get Caesar to blow off the Senate in favor of cavorting with her, initially in a gold bathtub (inspired). With convincing reinterpretation Decius (Eisa Davis) changes his mind back, however. It’s here we first meet Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel), seemingly drunk and wearing shades (go figure), arrive to accompany her leader to the gathering.
You know the rest. Caesar is stabbed multiple times – here, first in the back, then physically pulled over the top of a podium to the floor and pierced by all. Brutus is the last and apparently most reticent, appearing directly after, glazed as a deer in headlights. A couple of actors have difficulty getting daggers out of pockets. One participant photographs the body on a Smart Phone.
Antony is devastated. “She” secures permission to address the public after Brutus’s brief announcement of Caesar’s death. (Pronouns change when applicable.) Marvel, a second terrific performance, looks and sounds like Sissy Spacek replete with Texas accent. The actress roils then erupts. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” One of Shakespeare’s great Machiavellian speeches, it sounds as if in support of Brutus & Co while denouncing them with honeyed words, inciting the crowd. Nuanced writing moves seamlessly from defeat to empowerment to challenge. Marvel wonderfully emotes from her gut.
Elizabeth Marvel and The Company
The rest is demonstrations, Civil War, firing squads, and suicides. Battles are well staged. With civilians calling out, then running on stage from all over the audience, energy high and movement constant, violent pandemonium is evoked despite lack of much choreographed fighting. (NYC sirens often add.) Political and psychological parallels are many. Alas, the show’s incredibly short run doesn’t allow more of you to find them for yourselves.
Director Oscar Eustis moves his large cast with strategic skill immersing the audience, manipulating tension, creating sweep. Two-handers create palpable intimacy. Brutus and his boy Lucilius (Tyler La Marr) are as profoundly personal as he and Cassius or he and Portia. When laughter rises from the bleachers out of recognition, it fades to allow the production to continue.
David Rockwell’s Set looks as if it was designed by committee members each of whom stuck to his own vision, which, judging by his organization’s current ubiquity, may be the case. Too many styles deny the play gravitas as well as cohesion. Additionally, while a poster-plastered, graffiti-filled wall supporting a large number of floral tributes is timely and the Senate chamber looks splendid, inside Brutus’ tent resembles a lady’s sewing room and various Photoshopped panels evoke high school productions. Oh, and there’s the giant eye, a representation of Big Brother?
Most of Paul Tazewell’s contemporary, non-distracting Costume Design works well, though street cops without weapons or communication equipment become lite police. (His Tactical Squad is frighteningly well outfitted.)
Jessica Paz deserves double call out for Sound Design. Not only does she conjure vociferous mobs and not so distant violence, but every player speaking from the audience (and there are many) is distinctly heard. Original Music and Soundscapes by Bray Poor are cinematic.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Greg Henry and The Company
Free Shakespeare in the Park/ The Public Theater presents
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Directed by Oscar Eustis
The Public Theater
In the park: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – July 11-August 13, 2017