Monday, June 12, 2017

23 (2017-2018): Review: JULIUS CAESAR (seen June 10, 2017)

“Make Rome Great Again”

The New York theatre’s nonstop attack on President Trump raises the ante with Oskar Eustis’s controversial Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. While current plays like Robert Shenkkan’s Building the Wall are specifically written with the POTUS in mind, and coming works like 1984, written before he took office, will, reportedly, be lofting stink bombs in his direction, even shows like Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie and the imminent Attack of the Elvis Impersonators can’t resist firing a sling here and an arrow there in DJT’s direction. [Note: It’s just been announced that Delta and the Bank of America have pulled their support for this production.]
Nikki M. James, Corey Stoll. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As you may have heard, this up-to-the-minute, modern-dress revival, which runs a fast-paced, intermissionless two hours, is intended to remind us of the danger to democracy represented by our political situation. It presents the title character (Gregg Henry, very good) as the out-and-out avatar of our cockily blaring, pussy-grabbing president. He’s got the blond hair, navy suit, overlong tie, air of grandiosity, and supporters wearing “Make America Great Again” caps.
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Marvel. Photo: Joan Marcus.
He bathes in a golden tub and is joined there by his fashionable, Slavic-accented wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko). When he steps out of it starkers, he dons a plush, white bathrobe. The aftermath of his assassination—because he would deny Rome’s democratic tradition by agreeing to be its king—is as vivid as what led CNN to fire Kathy Griffin. All that’s missing is Alec Baldwin.

Although this may be the first New York production of Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader has been so closely likened to a sitting US president,* the idea of using modern dress to comment on current politics has been around ever since Orson Welles’s heavily adapted Mercury Theatre version, 80 years ago; subtitled The Death of a Dictator, it was inspired by the rise of Mussolini and set in a jackboot-wearing, totalitarian fascist state. The year, of course, was 1937, [A reader reminds me that the Acting Company offered an Obama-like Caesar in 2012.]
Gregg Henry and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Just as Eustis’s analogy leads to ambiguities that crumble on closer scrutiny, so did Welles’s, which couldn’t neatly express a propaganda message it wasn’t written to convey. Critic Grenville Vernon, for example, noted the difficulty of determining if the message was pro- or antifascist, or who the hero was. But there’s no denying the present version’s entertainment value for liberal audiences. It doesn’t matter if makes sense so long as it provides a valve for letting off political steam in these troubled times. Just don’t do it in Wyoming.
CoreyStoll and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Eustis’s program note says: “And in case any of you are wondering—no, we didn’t write any new lines. It’s all Shakespeare,” but a recorded announcement before the play begins notes an exception. It turns out to be the one about what Caesar could get away with by doing it on “Fifth Avenue,” which gets the biggest laugh but seems seriously out of place. On the other hand, there’s plenty in Shakespeare’s original to allow for contemporizing the intentions behind his words, even to the use of "posting" or "the press."
Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The New York audience, of course, laps this stuff up like free ice cream, and, for all the seriousness of what’s depicted, the Caesar scenes play more like political comedy—every possible nuance gets a knowing chuckle—than solemn historical drama about the abuse of power and the collapse of democracy. It turns out, of course, that Caesar’s assassination wasn’t such a hot idea, so Trump haters hoping for the president’s removal should put aside their metaphorical swords and allow the legal issues to take their natural course.
Elizabeth Marvel and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In fact, for all his obvious arrogance and ambition, Caesar’s killing seems more the outcome of a band of fanatics than a blow for freedom. Caesar, however, dies midway through; once he’s gone (aside from a brief, ghostly appearance), the production’s air, shall we say, begins to leak, with two principal exceptions.

(Talking of swords, by the way, having Roman heroes die after calling for swords to run on when all that’s available are knives remains an irritating convention in modern-dress stagings of the classics. Guns are used frequently in Eustis’s staging—especially for a series of executions—but none seems available when a military leader needs to die. Perhaps they could use the sword that dominates the program cover.)

One of the exceptions preventing a completely flat tire is the dueling speeches of Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel) about Caesar’s murder, the first justifying it and the second, more famous (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your covfefe”—just kidding), condemning it. As always, especially when well delivered, these rhetorical exercises demonstrate the power with which cleverly articulated words can manipulate mass opinion. The other is a fiery exchange between Brutus and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) over their war with Antony’s forces. But not much else prevents the post-Caesar scenes from seeming dully anticlimactic.

David Rockwell’s set gathers an eclectic assortment of elements, including a metal tower faced with a picture of George Washington set against the preamble to the Constitution, and two huge, quarter arcs suggesting gears. Only when these latter come together to create a semicircular background to the assassination in the Senate does the set have aesthetic coherence. There’s also an extensive use of elevator traps to introduce and remove actors and scenic pieces (like that bathtub); one such unit is a shabby, motel-like room (subbing for a tent, I presume) for Brutus and Cassius’ argument. It looks like a discard from a Sam Shepherd play.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting is superb, Jessica Paz’s sound design enhances the atmosphere, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet’s fight business is gripping, and Paul Tazewell has come up with an abundance of present-day costumes, with touches like pussy hats, for a huge cast. A lot of future actors, many of them planted among us to rise up for mob scenes, are going to be able to list this Julius Caesar on their résumés.

The acting, by and large, is solid but unremarkable. It’s politically incorrect to say so but, for all her admirable skills, particularly during her well-delivered big oration, the presence of Elizabeth Marvel as Antony (for which she uses a vaguely Southern accent) is disconcerting, requiring constant self-reminders to overlook a woman’s being cast in this very masculine role. But, if it’s necessary to cast an actress as Antony, then few could do it quite so well. Stoll and Thompson are effective in their big confrontation and display a fine contrast elsewhere, the former’s rational attitude complemented by the latter’s rabblerousing fire. Neither, though, is able to overcome the lassitude that seeps in following the perforation of the pompous POTUS.

Critic John Mason Brown, overwhelmed by the power of Orson Welles’s 1937 adaptation, wrote: “Of all the many new plays and productions the season has so far revealed, this . . . is by all odds the most exciting, the most imaginative, the most topical, the most awesome, and the most absorbing. The touch of genius is upon it.” The Central Park production is interesting principally for its provocative topicality; the touch of genius, however, is not upon it.


Delacorte Theater
Central Park at 81st Street, NYC
Through June 18