Julius Caesar, his strawberry blonde hair teased and coiffed, a cigar in one hand as he paws his wife Calpurnia’s crotch with the other in a crude public display, swaggers about the stage of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, the first offering in this summer’s Free Shakespeare In The Park from the Public Theater.
Shakespeare scored contemporary political points by cloaking them in historical allegories. Director Oskar Eustis, who also is the Public’s artistic director, demands no such imaginative leap from the audience that’s been packing the 2,000-seat Delacorte since the show began performances May 23. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia is swathed and swaddled in free-flowing silk, totters about in spike heels and speaks with a heavy Slavic accent. Fully dressed, she joins her naked husband in an onstage bathtub in her failed attempt to keep him from heading over to the Senate on the Ides of March.
But of course, Caesar does go, where he is murdered at the hands of conspirators led by his friends-turned-enemies, Cassius and Brutus.The stabbing is brutally realistic; on the night I saw the play, a full moon rising over the park turned the cloud-mottled sky into a mask of evil, as if nature were colluding as co-conspirator. Or perhaps my imagination was enflamed by the unusually frank parallels Eustis sketched out between Rome upon the return of Caesar’s triumph over Pompey and Donald Trump’s triumph over the electoral college.
Whichever the case, the production is meant to provoke, and there have been reports of at least one audience member expressing shock over this act of lethal violence against a Presidential facsimile. It may not be as crude as the assassination of Kim Jong-un in The Interview, but the timing is not so good in the wake of l’affair Kathy Griffin, who wielded a detached Trump head not long after Snoop Dogg shot a clown dressed like Trump in a video.
The murder at the Delacorte comes about half way through this trim, 2-hour, intermissionless production. The crowd hooted at Caesar and Calpurnia’s entrance, as if from the bowels of a Roman Trump Tower. But there was no laughter, indeed silence ruled, during the assassination scene. No one walked out or laughed, either. It was a breath-bating moment in a very good production whose singular drawback is that, like John McCain’s questioning of James Comey, it makes no sense.
For starters, Caesar (the excellent Gregg Henry) is a conquering military hero, a populist who thrice refuses the crown in order to remain a senator. It is Cassius (the spectacular John Douglas Thompson, whose achievements in both classical and contemporary theater – he’s a Tony nominee on Sunday for his role in August Wilson’s Jitney – keep mounting) who gets the conspiracy plot rolling by convincing upright Brutus (a deeply sympathetic Corey Stoll of Girls and House of Cards) that Caesar must go, lest he become, in Brutus’ words, “a serpent’s egg, which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous.” A pre-criminal, sort of like Tom Cruise’s John Anderton in Minority Report (which, now that I think of it, didn’t make much sense either).
How little sense? As the show begins, Eustis’ voice welcomes the audience and says that only one line in the text has been altered, and we’ll know it when we hear it. Casca says to his fellow would-be assassins, “But there’s no heed to be taken of them / if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less,” – assailing the fickleness of the mob that has so readily switched allegiance from Pompey to Caesar.
Here, however, Casca (Teagle F. Bougere) says, “But there’s no heed to be taken of them / if Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue, they would have done no less.” That’s a cheap laugh line, unbefitting the man who would not be king. Shakespeare skewers the groundlings; Eustis, the general. A reference to “press” signifies not the packed crowd but sniveling media, and when a messenger refers to a “post,” he naturally pulls out his mobile phone.
The day, or at least Caesar’s honor, is saved by the drama’s most famous speech, Marc Antony’s funeral oration. There’s a gender switch, with Marc Antony played by Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland and the upcoming The Meyerowitz Stories) an actress here in the grand, or grandiloquent, manner, and that’s offered as a compliment: She sheds tears for JC but knows exactly what she’s about, stirring the crowd by referring derisively to the murderers as “honorable men” and Caesar as being too “ambitious.” With swagger and an insinuating Southern drawl, Marvel turns the tide against Cassius and Brutus, and their fates are sealed.
There are fine performances from Nikki M. James (Brain Dead, The Good Wife) as Brutus’ wife Portia, and Tina Benko (Person of Interest, Vinyl) as Calpurnia, among a large cast. David Rockwell’s monumentalist setting lays it on thick, with banners depicting Washington, Lincoln and the U.S. Constitution behind what appears to be a giant, split gear-wheel whose halves revolve away to open up the stage for battles and the like.
It’s probably best not to brush up your Shakespeare before taking in Julius Caesar in Central Park. The Bard has survived many a sillier interpretation (not infrequently on this same stage). Even given its rough satirical edge, the pleasures and the faults of this production lie not in the stars but in ourselves: It’s a staging for this age, if not the ages.