By Tulis McCallJulius Caesar has arrived at the Delacorte Theater to kick off the summer season of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park. And just as it does, It seems that Donald Trump has put his periscope up and discovered that someone is using him as the centerpiece for a feast. WITHOUT his permission, if you please. His likeness is being used, and he is not making any money off of it. A sad day, indeed. But don’t worry because Bank of America and Delta are going to take care of the bullies who are making fun of Donny. Yes siree these monoliths are going to bestride the earth and take their money away from the Public Theatre to teach them a lesson. Just another case of life imitating art as far as I can see. Looks like Oskar Eustis is going to have to redo his pre-recorded speech in which he thanks Bank of America with trumpets blaring. So out of control has this become that the New York Times published its review before the official opening.
The upshot will be that this production will be getting way more attention than it deserves. Not that it is a bad production. It is a ho-hum production that has so many wink-wink elements stuffed into it that it becomes unbalanced. The concept of making this a contemporary setting started out as one thing and them morphed into a being all its own.
Yes the title character is portrayed – and done very well by Gregg Henry – as Donald Trump. But the central character of this play is not the title character. It is Brutus. (which Bank of America and Delta don’t seem to understand) Brutus is Caesar’s buddy, and confidant, and trusted ally. It is to him that the other senators turn when Caesar has slipped a nut and appears to be looking to have himself appointed God-In-Charge. When all other possibilities are exhausted (none of which is obvious here because this is a pared down version running 2 hours without an intermission) it is determined that murder is the only solution. Murder by committee, more precisely. No one person is to be blamed or praised, if it comes to that. All seven members of this sub-committee on death are to share the responsibility of death equally.
Except they don’t. It is Brutus on whom the mantel falls. His is the path to which we are attached because Caesar is dispatched relatively quickly.And thank goodness we have an actor who can handle the weight of that burden as well as the language created to convey it. Corey Stoll handles the role of Brutus with an easy grace that is deceptive. He makes it look easy. It is not. Iambic pentameter has a certain flow to it which, if you surrender into it becomes a kind of music. If you fight it, as do some of the other actors, it sounds like ox carts navigating a steep grade.
Stoll is not a strapping warrior. He is a normal looking guy. But oh, what is going on between those ears and in that heart. What battles are being waged as he doubts, fears and second guesses himself. His facility with the language and the poetry never falters and as a result we are allowed into the depths and the secret dwellings of a man driven by passion and loyalty straight into a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape.
As I said the rest of the cast does not fare so well. John Douglas Thomson‘s delivery is so stiff that I made notes where I thought the lines ended on the page, because he consistently paused in places that made no sense within the context of his speeches. A quick examination later on proved me correct. His stomping, shouting and stiff body language made me wonder if he were not feeing well on the night I saw it. It is a one note performance that should be an aria.
I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Marvel, and was surprised to see her Marc Antony being initially presented as a jaunty runner in a race and using with an accent that defied pinpoint. Southern? Appalachian? Oklahoma? Texas? It is hard to tell and therefore distracting. Her speech over Caesar’s body falls way short of the incantation it is intended to be because it lacks the nuance that Marvel has shown in other roles. The famous speech where Brutus incites the citizens of Rome is jumbled as Marvel herself appears to struggle as she brings the message out into the audience where the citizens yell and argue.
As the now infamous Caesar, Gregg Henry hist just the right tone. This Caesar is short-sighted, self-centered and sinister. This is a Caesar we believe because this is a Caesar we know. Henry is precise and walks the razor’s ege with care for the short time that he is onstage. Tina Benko too makes excellent use of her brief time onstage. Her Calpurnia is a small women with a specific agenda from which she does not waver. Nikki M. James’ Portia is a thing of beauty, although she is so briefly with us that her demise has no chance to become consequential. and mention must be made of Edward James Hyland who, with a few lines in his quiver, makes Cicero bloom.
Eustis has stuffed this production with crowds and chaos and clamber to within an inch of it’s life. It is packed so full that the skeleton of the story is overshadowed. This story is a tragedy. What happens when good people are taken down by their own actions. What happens when violence sours in the mouth and turns upon its maker? In an odd way the story of Brutus is the very implosion that pundits are predicting will happen to Trump. So this is an opportunity for a double-edged sword of storytelling. This, sadly, never happens. When Cassius and Brutus meet for a final reconnoiter – in what appears to be a college dorm room (?) – the battle that is about to be played out is nothing to which we feel connected. The final scenes are so confusing that we sit out the last scenes patiently waiting for the clock to run out and for Octavius (who is played more like an IT tech than an emperor by Robert Gilbert) to declare that the play is ended.
The good news is that you realize this is a very important play that should be revisited. With any luck, you will go directly home and pull your copy down from the shelf and give it a thorough going over. Or pull something off the Internet. Hell, watch it on You Tube. But do something. Otherwise this production and all the hoopla surrounding it will remain Much Ado About Nothing.
Yes I did just say that.
JULIUS CAESAR – by William Shakespeare, Directed by Oskar Eustis
WITH: Tina Benko (Calpurnia); Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Gregg Henry (Caesar); Edward James Hyland (Lepidus, Popilius); Nikki M. James (Portia); Christopher Livingston (Titinius, Cinna); Elizabeth Marvel (Antony); Chris Myers (Flavius, Messala, Ligarius); Marjan Neshat (Metullus Cimber); Corey Stoll (Marcus Brutus); John Douglas Thompson (Caius Cassius); and Natalie Woolams-Torres (Marullus). The non-equity company will include Isabel Arraiza (Publius Clitus); Erick Betancourt; Mayaa Boateng (Soothsayer); Motell Foster (Trebonius); Dash King; Tyler La Marr (Lucillius); Gideon McCarty; Nick Selting (Lucius, Strato); Alexander Shaw (Octavius’ Servant); Michael Thatcher (Cobbler); and Justin Walker White (Pindarus).
Scenic design by David Rockwell; costume design by Paul Tazewell; lighting design by Kenneth Posner; sound design by Jessica Paz; original music and soundscapes by Bray Poor; and hair, wig, and makeup design by Leah J. Loukas.
The Public Theater (Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis; Executive Director, Patrick Willingham) will officially open JULIUS CAESAR, the first show of The Public’s 2017 Free Shakespeare in the Park season, on Monday, June 12. Through Sunday, June 18. JULIUS CAESAR continues a 55-year tradition of free theater in Central Park. FREE tickets to JULIUS CAESAR are distributed, two per person (age 5+), at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning at 12:00 p.m. on the day of each public performance. In order to allow as many different people as possible to attend Free Shakespeare in the Park this summer, visitors will be limited to receiving free tickets to two performances only of each production. There will continue to be a separate line for accessible tickets for senior citizens (65+) and patrons with disabilities. For more ticket information please visit www.publictheater.org.
The Public continues its partnership with TodayTix, who will be offering the exclusive Mobile Ticket Lottery for Free Shakespeare in the Park. Tickets will be distributed by random mobile lottery on the TodayTix app each date that there is a public performance at the Delacorte Theater.