Saturday, June 17, 2017

Julius Caesar - Where Absolute Certainty Can Be Your Undoing

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Few plays are as consistently topical as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Offering a forceful lesson on the perils of blind ambition, the show is being presented free in Central Park by The Public Theater. Unfortunately the show’s director, Oskar Eustis, at times falls victim to this same failing of not seeing the big picture in terms of what he has envisioned.

Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry) has, through his various military campaigns, become much beloved by the citizens of Rome. However, there are those in the Roman Senate, such as Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) and Brutus (Corey Stall) who fear Caesar has become too powerful of late. Especially when his increasing influence comes at the expense of the people and their legally elected representatives. Brutus in particular bemoaning the loss of the legitimacy of the Roman Republic to Caesar’s populist appeal.

Yet even as Brutus and others plot to stop Caesar's further rise, they fail to take into account the will of the very people they have pledged to save. For as the play makes quite clear, the masses are often less concerned with who is in power than what those in control can actually do for them. In an interesting bit of irony, it becomes clear that just as Caesar is so self-absorbed with his own status, so is Brutus unable to fathom how his actions against Caesar could be seen as anything less than honorable.

In keeping with the idea of making the show as timely as possible, Eustis has chosen to fashion Caesar in the image of President Donald Trump. Complete with red tie, yellow hair, a thin skin and a huge ego. Henry doing a more than passable job in the role while never becoming a full-on caricature. Although by using Trump, the production puts its main focus on the character of Julius Caesar, when it should instead be on Brutus. Brutus’ actions being the catalyst around which the play turns. He is also the most complex person in the play, and the one who undergoes the biggest internal transformation by show’s end.

The decision to portray Caesar's wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko) as First Lady Melania Trump works well enough in terms of hair, makeup and clothes - the show being done in modern dress - but falters when it has the actress try to emulate a Slovenian accent. The idea feels like a tired gimmick, with her speeches resulting in a distracting laughter from the audience. The practice also destroys the emotional effect of Calpurnia's speech warning her husband not to go to the Senate on the Ides of March.

The play also has a habit of relying too much on symbolism and not on the text itself. In a conformation sequence, the two sides take the form of riot police (the Roman security force) and a group of agitators (the Roman people) seemingly wanting to destroy the city. A scene where Roman security beats a poet (Yusef Bulos) senseless, feels eerily reminiscent of Rodney King. We also are treated to the sight of the agitators destroying the set, which has been festooned with images suggesting the United States government. It's as if Eustis is saying that in a corrupt society, the only option is to tear it down and start again. Certainly a point for discussion, but taken too far here to be truly effective.

The real star of this production is Elizabeth Marvel in the role of Marc Antony. She taking the character from a seemingly drunken fool to a welder of power in her own right. Her speech before the Roman people literally pulsates with venom and passion. The result being that she soon has the crowd in the palm of her hand. Brutus, who allows Antony to speak in the hope she would help cement his own cause, soon learns he has made a serious mistake. The public's continual shift of allegiance proving how people are all too often taken in by flowery speeches, rather than trying to understand the motive behind said words. This is also evident earlier on when Caesar and Antony stage a scene where she offers him a crown and he refuses it three times. Each refusal and subsequent offering bringing larger and larger cheers from the multitude.

Stoll is excellent as the conflicted Brutus. Someone who finds there is a steep price to pay for following the dictates of his conscience. He also taking to task those who do not follow his standards of right and wrong, be their friend or foe. Thompson presents a powerful Cassius. A realist and career politician, he is not about to see his personal power base usurped. Yet he is also wise enough to know he cannot succeed in his plans alone; doing all he can to entice others to join him.

The text has been heavily edited, and while it makes the evening move quickly, at bit more explanation would have added some additional depth. Though a line tossed in about Fifth Avenue provokes a bit of knowing laughter. David Rockwell's sets and Paul Tazewell's costumes also work very well here.

If there’s one thing Julius Caesar makes evident, it's how the more things change, the more human nature remains constant. There is certainly a lot to admire in this production, though the best of the show can be found in its individual parts, rather than the entire whole.

Featuring: Chris Myers (Flavius/Ligarius/Messala, Alexander Shaw (Carpenter/Artemidorus/Octavius' Servant), Natalie Woolams-Torres (Marullus), Michael Thatcher (Cobbler), Gregg Henry (Julius Caesar), Teagle F. Bougere (Casca), Tina Benko (Calpurnia), Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Anthony), Mayaa Boateng (Soothsayer), Corey Stoll (Brutus), John Douglas Thompson (Cassius), Edward James Hyland (Cicero/Popilius/Lena/Lepidus), Christopher Livingston (Cinna Titinius), Nick Selting (Lucius), Majran Neshat (Metellus Cimber), Eisa Davis (Decius), Motell Foster (Trebonius), Nikki M. James (Portia), Isabel Arraiza (Publius/Clitus), Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet), Robert Gilbert (Octavius) Tyler La Marr (Lucilius), Justin Walker White (Pindarus), Gideon McCarty (Company), Dash King (Company), Erick Betancourt (Company)

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Original Music and Soundscapes: Bray Poor
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design: Leah J. Lukas
Co-Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Production Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Stage Manager: Paul Vella
Fight Captain: Edward James Hyland
Directed by Oskar Eustis

The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
81st Street in Central Park
Admission: Free
Running Time: Two Hours, Five Minutes, no intermission

Closes: June 18, 2017

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