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John Douglas Thompson

Julius Caesar – Truth AND Consequences


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

August Wilson’s Jitney – Superb Ensemble


Jitney  is the first play written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson for his ten chapter, decade by decade, Pittsburgh Cycle. Masterfully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Manhattan Theatre Club’s vibrant production is as good as it gets. Every member of this virtuoso ensemble inhabits a fully realized character with distinctive carriage, gestures, speech and attitude. Not a moment feels less than voyeuristic.


Keith Randolph Smith, Harvey Blanks

It’s 1977. Pittsburgh’s Hill District is deeply depressed, rife with homelessness, alcoholism, violence, drugs, dilapidated living conditions, empty political promises, and people trying to pull themselves up by frayed bootstraps. A rundown, storefront Car Service gorgeously realized (inside and out) by Designer David Gallo, is the ersatz clubhouse of lifelong friends who work for honorable, straight-from-the-hip Becker (John Douglas Thompson), in addition to whatever other jobs they can get. Each has his own idiocentric character and history gradually revealed like slowly peeled onions. Incoming requests for livery are answered in accepted pecking order.


Andre Holland, Carra Patterson

Drivers: Youngblood, aka Darrell (Andre Holland), rejects any client he thinks is “gonna mess up” his car. Barely out of his 20s, the young man’s ambition is to buy a house for girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and his son. Still, he might be running around with Rena’s sister. Motormouth gossip, Turnbo (Michael Potts) has opinions (and judgments) about everything and a sizeable chip on his shoulder. “Brown car. You be ready cause I ain’t waitin’.” Gentle giant Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) remains haunted by his service in Korea. Fielding (Anthony Chisom), once a tailor for Billy Eckstein, retains a dash of genteel style despite constant, full-tilt  inebriation.

Friends: Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), a sweet doorman at a local hotel, clings to his job like a life raft but is also periodically sauced and Shealy (Harvey Banks), a leisure-suited numbers runner in almost perpetual good spirits.


John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden

Two pivotal events affect this eloquent slice-of-life scenario. Pittsburgh threatens to board up and then tear down the block, potentially robbing the group of familiar, relatively secure livelihood. And Becker’s son Booster (Brandon J. Deardon) is released from 20 years in prison for the murder of a woman who cuckolded him. Becker can deal with the city but has never been able to reconcile his son’s action.

There’s a feud, a gun, a death (nothing to do with the gun), collective defiance, romantic misunderstanding, and lots of stories. Though times are tough, camaraderie bonds, exhibiting spirit that, though beaten, can’t be squashed. Every actor pulls his weight.


Harvey Blanks, Michael Potts, Brandon J. Dirden, Andre Holland

Toni-Leslie James Costumes are wonderfully specific to character as well as period and economic level. Bill Sims Jr.’s Original Music feels like the pulse of these people.

Frederick August Kittel, Jr. changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father’s death in 1965.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith, Andre Holland

August Wilson’s Jitney
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street