New York City Theater
Murder and violence don’t really work. That’s the lesson of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” whose startling Public Theater production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater has caused such a ruckus. When Rep. Steve Scalise and other Congressmen were shot this month, one immediate reaction was to at least partly blame the production for its “encouragement” of political murder by portraying the assassinated Caesar in the guise of President Trump, himself no stranger to incendiary rhetoric.
Besides raising the specter of censorship and smacking the Constitution’s protection of free speech in the kisser, objections to the production are spurious. If any nay-sayers sat through the two-hour, intermissionless production, they’d know that, far from approving the murder, Shakespeare and the Public reveal what happens when political norms are sullied. As Oskar Eustis, the production’s director and the Public’s artistic director, said in a program note, “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.”
Controversy has almost overshadowed this production’s merits and shortcomings, which succeeds more in its first half than second. Caesar’s assassination proceeds from a combination of factors, mainly that his ascendancy would mean the end of democracy. He refused a crown thrice, but may not do so a fourth time. Caesar’s narcissism posed a real danger, leading Cassius and Brutus to head the rebellion. Later, the two conspirators have a falling out that ends in their suicides.
The early parts of the play, including the assassination and culminating in Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, are excitingly staged. Audience plants shout and join a believable mob. But the aftermath is a letdown, mainly because the pivotal argument scene between Brutus and Cassius is wan. Taking place in a tacky bedroom, what should be the linchpin result of a wrong-headed, intemperate assassination devolves into flat bickering at best, not helped by having Caesar’s ghost appear by opening the bedroom door.
Shakespeare, hating tyranny, believed in order, in the triumph of structure over chaos. Director Eustis and his actors understand this, depicting Caesar as vain and ambitious, a sardonic leader just asking for trouble. Smiling, obsequious underlings flatter him as he revels in praise. (“I am constant as the Northern Star”) Like all demagogues he thinks his superior position will protect him.
The Trump allusions are specific and very funny: Caesar wears a log red, phallic necktie, has a Slovenian-accented wife and bathes in a golden bathtub. Along the way, hand-held signs of “Resist” and “Truth,” cell phones and pussy hats emphasize the evening’s contemporaneity.
The cast is excellent. Corey Stoll is a stoic, conflicted Brutus, while John Douglas Thomson is a wily Cassius. Elizabeth Marvel is a fierce, southern-accented Marc Antony, Gregg Henry a preening Caesar and Teagle F. Bougere a manipulative Casca. Making the most out of small roles are Tina Benko as Caesar’s arm-candy wife, Calpurnia, and Nikki M. James as Brutus’ troubled wife, Portia.
David Rockwell’s scenic design features huge blow-ups of the U.S. Capitol, George Washington and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “We the People,” it begins, a reminder that Oskar Eustis and the Public Theater are doing a service to the unending experiment of democracy.
June 16, 2017