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Theatre in Review: Julius Caesar (The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater)

Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The plan was to give Julius Caesar a ripped-from-the-headlines quality; instead, this production, running in Central Park through this weekend, is making headlines. Even as theatre fans watched the Tony Awards on Sunday night the Internet was buzzing with the news that Delta Air Lines and Bank of America were dropping their support for the Public Theater because Oskar Eustis' production features a very Donald Trump-like Julius Caesar. (Much more has happened since then, much of it ginned up with the Breitbart website) As played by Gregg Henry, who sports an impressive blond pompadour, Julius Caesar is a self-adoring, self-invented celebrity, beloved by the rabble but empty-headed when it comes to policy and easily manipulated by sycophants. His wife, Calpurnia -- in a slyly comic turn by the ever-adept Tina Benko -- is a tall, willowy blonde with a Slavic accent; warning him to avoid visiting the Senate on the Ides of March, she joins him in his gilded bathtub, where he sits, happily puffing on a cigar. The moment that proved too much for the corporate sponsors comes when Caesar is stabbed to death by Cassius, Brutus, and their co-conspirators; Caesar staggers around, his white shirt stained in red, until he collapses in a heap; it's a moment of unbridled brutality.

Well, I hate to call anyone a hypocrite, but the Guthrie Theater in 2012 presented the Acting Company's production of Julius Caesar, in which the title character was a dead ringer for then-President Obama, and nobody blinked at that. (For that matter, the Public Theater production was in previews for three weeks, during which time nary a peep was heard.) It's just another replay of the manufactured controversy that unfolded when the media briefly went mad over Kathy Griffin's tasteless, unfunny joke about beheading Trump, conveniently forgetting that the rocker Ted Nugent constantly called for the assassination of President Obama, whom he called "a subhuman mongrel;" when Obama was running for president, Nugent urged him to "suck on my machine gun." But that's life in these United States these days; we are all selectively outraged now.

Still, it's possible to condemn the craven actions of Delta and Bank of America while simultaneously wishing that Eustis had found another way to link Julius Caesar -- a play that never dates, in my view -- to today's politics without dragging in the image of He Who Occupies the White House. Shakespeare's Caesar isn't above manipulating the mob for his own purposes, for example, rejecting three times the crown offered to him, thus driving up public demand that he accept it. But he is a man of intellect, a member of the same Roman elite that includes Brutus, Marc Antony, and the others; his tragedy is triggered when he steps out of their ranks, grasping at dictatorial power. Making him a buffoon -- a doppelganger for the president who, in all likelihood, is loathed by virtually everyone in attendance at the Delacorte -- changes the play's stakes and muddies its intent.

This is especially so because Julius Caesar is, at bottom, about the futility of violent revolution. The conspirators are certain that a single act of murder will save the Roman Republic; instead, they destabilize it, triggering disorder in the streets and prompting the imposition of martial law; the suspects are executed in what looks like a shooting gallery, in a sequence at least as shocking as the murder of Caesar. (I might add that Julius Caesar was the ideal Shakespeare play for the early 2000s, as it offered the last word on the folly of what was then known as regime change.) If anything, Eustis' production, in keeping with the text, argues that even would-be tyrants must be endured, that breaking the rule of law only breeds chaos. But why evoke the image of Trump when you have nothing mordant to say about him and his uniquely toxic brand of politics? By inserting him into this text, Eustis merely plays into Trump's penchant for victimization, affording the right-wing media a delightful distraction from the looming Russia scandal, the ongoing health care disaster, and other harbingers of chaos.

This is too bad because, much of the time, this Julius Caesar is clearly, powerfully staged, facilitated by one of the best casts to appear in the Delacorte in some time -- and that's saying something. The appearance of the Soothsayer (Mayaa Boateng), clad in a hoodie and the Guy Fawkes mask favored by the members of Anonymous, is an authentically shivery moment, making the first of many connections between Imperial Rome and the failing Pax Americana. John Douglas Thompson's soft-spoken, lethally minded Cassius raises the tension level with each appearance: Smiling falsely and waving when a couple of cops pass by, he quietly lays out his rationale for murder to Brutus. Saying of Caesar, "And this man/Is now become a god, and Cassius is/A wretched creature and must bend his body," he inserts a pause between "man" and "is now" that signals exactly how much he means business. So incensed is Cassius by Caesar's will to power that Thompson flings his overcoat to the ground in mid-speech -- as if physically casting off the tyrant himself.

In contrast, Corey Stoll's Brutus appears serenely detached, but you can practically hear his brain clicking away, weighing the odds and then acting with cold ferocity, bathing his hands in Caesar's blood before offering an ulterior, self-serving funeral oration that paves the way for Marc Antony's devastating response. Marc Antony is cannily played by Elizabeth Marvel as a smooth opportunist who, seeing her chance, uses every oratorical trick in the book to arouse the populace, heedless of what the end will be; her work in this scene offers the best case for Eustis' interpretation, laying bare the destructive effects of populist rage in its furious need to bring down something -- anything -- in a naked display of power.

The entire cast scores in roles large and small. Teagle F. Bougere's Casca bristles with contempt for the crowds, noting that "if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would still forgive him." (This is one instance of the text's having been amended, with the words "on Fifth Avenue" added after "mothers," earning an easy laugh that is beneath all involved.) Edward James Hyland's Cicero is a cynic's cynic, watching the plotting of the others with barely disguised glee. Eisa Davis' Decius is a honey-voiced schemer, smirking over her skills at manipulating Caesar. Nikki M. James captures the growing fear of Portia, Brutus' wife, who sees disaster coming yet cannot prevent it. Robert Gilbert makes a strong impression as Octavius Caesar, who takes action to clean up the mess that follows the assassination. Yusef Bulos has a telling cameo as Cinna the Poet, who is the first victim of the police brutality that consumes Rome in the latter passages. Not for nothing is the climactic battle staged as an urban riot, with police squads, wielding shields and batons, mowing down crowds represented by a small army of extras; it's like watching an Occupy demonstration gone horribly wrong.

David Rockwell's set includes a series of architectural pieces that come together to effectively create the Senate interior, but it also includes so many other items -- including a series of banners placed on light towers, decorated with American icons such as Washington and Jefferson, and also a series of smaller panels on which citizens post their protest (and which revolve to reveal a series of images of trees) -- that the general effect is cluttered. Kenneth Posner's lighting, Paul Tazewell's costumes, and Jessica Paz's sound design -- especially the alarming chopping of helicopters overhead -- are all solid achievements.

Eustis' stewardship of the Public has been exemplary, and long may it continue. With such productions as Richard Nelson's Gabriel Family plays, Lynn Nottage's Sweat, and John Leguizamo's Latin History for Dummies, the Public has provided New York with plenty of provocative political theatre -- and that's just this past season. This Julius Caesar has plenty to offer, but, in using Trump as it does, it allows him and his confederates to do what they do best -- distract from the important matters at hand by creating yet another teapot tempest. As the lead character in another Public Theater production might warn: Don't throw away your shot. -- David Barbour

(13 June 2017)

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