Entertainment » Theatre

Julius Caesar

by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 13, 2017
Julius Caesar

It is a rite of passage to be privileged to attend Free Shakespeare in Central Park through the auspices of the Public Theater. For decades more than 5 million audience members sat under the stars and marveled at Shakespeare.

This season the offerings are "Julius Caesar" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." These two plays couldn't be further apart in spirit, and after the political walloping we have been facing as a country, and this is evinced in the very modern, Trumpian Julius Caesar gracing the Delacorte stage, we will need the light lift brought by "Midsummer."

The current "Julius Caesar," is a fast-paced, uber-modern version wrought by the Public's artistic director, Oscar Eustis. It features a diverse cast and non-gender specific casting that continues to blow the walls out of any other producer's idea of what these concepts might be. Bravo Public.

The physical presentation also brings the audience into modern time, as there are placards and posters plastered on the walls of the set by David Rockwell. Before the show begins, the audience is welcome to sign large petitions whose headings read: I Mourn For and I Hope For.

As the play begins, the petitions are ripped off and Caesar enters as Donald Trump, blond hair blazing and a tie well below his belt. At his heels is the faithful wife, Melania, oops, I mean Calpurnia. She is dressed in an outfit seemingly plucked, by costume designer Paul Tazewell, from Ivanka Trump's spring collection. These costume choices set the scene, so we are aware that although the language is Shakespeare's, the political turmoil is as modern as the hearings filling our airwaves.

As Oscar Eustis tells us in his excellent director's notes, when Caesar was killed on March 15, 44 B.C., democracy vanished and it would be two millennia before it was resurrected by colonists in the new America. "Julius Caesar is about how fragile democracy is. The institutions that we have grown up with, that we have inherited from the struggle of many generations of our ancestors, can be swept away in no time at all," said Eustis.

So we have Caesar, played with excellent swagger (and in one scene buck-naked) by Gregg Henry, known to many as the villainous senator in TV's "Scandal." He is flanked by Tina Benko who does a too-exact imitation of Mrs. Trump.

The senators surrounding Caesar and plotting to overthrow him are Casca, the superlative Teagle F. Bougere, Corey Stoll as a blundering, well-intentioned Brutus, and Marc Antony played by the very Southern-sounding Elizabeth Marvel. There is a bevy of other soldiers, acolytes, and rabble rousers who cheer from the audience and swarm the stage in explosions of gunshots and fog. All of this creates the very real sense of political protests and upheavals that we have witnessed up close, or at the very least, seen nightly, hourly, daily on the news.

Director Eustis states that he began to foment this production the day after Trump was elected president and it is not a stretch to see how the underhanded, double dealings in Shakespeare play are now not metaphors, but as actualities. When we witness and weigh former FBI Director Jim Comey's testimony as an attempt to coerce a loyalist into submission, we are watching Julius Caesar.

This is politics, and Shakespeare does it so very well. I did, however, find the constant referencing to modern times, including the insertion of the line by Caesar "I could stand in the midst of Fifth Avenue and shoot people, and I wouldn't lose any supporters," as a kind of artistic bludgeoning that proved unnecessary. The Trump stomping and muttering at times as well became a distraction to the excellent, complicated poetry that is the original text.

Yet all said, this is a production that deserves to be heralded and supported because perhaps after two swift hours we can take cold comfort in knowing that we should be vigilant in defending our democracy. If not, it is predestined to fail.

"Julius Caesar" runs through June 18 at the Delacorte Theater, (enter at 81st Street and Central Park West). For information on how to get free tickets, visit https://publictheater.org/Programs--Events/Shakespeare-in-the-Park/Free-Ticket-Distribution-in-the-Park/

Through June 18th

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