Thursday, March 28, 2019

194 (2018-2019): Review: THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR (seen March 26, 2019)


Julius Caesar has become one of the most regularly revived of Shakespeare’s plays locally in recent years, along with Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, A Winter’s Tale, and Twelfth Night. Its reflection of contemporary political concerns has never been sharper, a consideration that made Oskar Eustis’s 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production, with Caesar a doppelganger for Donald Trump, nationally notorious.
Citizens at the Feast of Lupercal. Photo: Henry Grossman.
As with that and so many other contemporary versions, the vivid but imperfect one now holding the stage at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, under the First Folio title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, is in modern dress. Originally staged by Shana Cooper at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February 2017, it comes to New York, under the aegis of Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), with a cast of 17, eight of whom were in the Oregon production. 
James Barbour, Rocco Sisto. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Cooper provides a swift-moving, clearly spoken staging, with the kind of directorial interpolations we’ve come to expect in Shakespeare revivals. For example, anxious to demonstrate the impact of the play’s developments not only on men but on women, she supplements the presence of Shakespeare’s female characters—Brutus’ wife Portia (Merritt Janson) and Caesar’s wife Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart)—by casting actresses as Cicero (Emily Dorsch), the Soothsayer (Michelle Hurst), and Artemidorous (Juliana Sass), their gender undisguised.
Merritt Janson, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Her thrust-stage set, designed by Sybil Wickersheimer, is a rather unattractive, ambiguous backdrop of tall, unadorned, white walls, partly sheet rock and partly curtains, some of it crumbling, some of it marked by cracks that show it verging on collapse. Parts of it will fall, loudly, perhaps suggesting the downfall of the Roman state (which actually was far from that crisis).
Citizens of Rome. Photo: Gerry Goodstein. 
Whatever it’s meant to represent, it’s from an upper edge that Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden), surrounded by masked plebeians, and with everyone’s lower half hidden, delivers his grand oration at Caesar’s funeral. The effect, I’m afraid, resembles a hand-puppet show.
Rocco Sisto, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
And why, one wonders, is so much space occupied by stacks of what look like fresh sheet-rock, some even providing brief bridgeways to outer parts of the stage? There also are similarly vague, cloth-wrapped structures whose presence distracts more than they attract.
Matthew Amendt (Cassius), Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Raquel Barreto’s costumes are nearly as ambiguous, only a few characters dressed in a way that clearly distinguishes the political leaders from the plebs. Brutus even appears for a time in a t-shirt and hoody, while slacks, shirts, and vests replace business suits for most.
Benjamin Bonenfant, James Barbour. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The action being set during the mid-March Lupercal festivities, the plebs get to carry on in masks and mop-like wigs. Given the general updating,one can’t help thinking what it would have looked like to see their drunken behavior tied to St. Patrick’s Day carousing. For the battles that occupy the play’s second half, the actors dress in a loose assortment of what could pass as found military garments, a camo shirt here, camo pants there, and so on.
Matthew Amendt, Stephen Michael Spencer (Caska). Photo: Henry Grossman.
Those battles, the production’s highlights, actually solve the problem of the play’s usually boring second half. That, of course, is what follows Caesar’s (Rocco Sisto) assassination to focus on the consequent strife between the forces led, respectively, by Brutus and Mark Antony (Jason Barbour), with the involvement of Lepidus (Liam Craig) and Octavius (Benjamin Bonenfont). Shakespeare’s words have been trimmed so Cooper and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch can concentrate on lots of physical activity.
Stephen Michael Spencer, Benjamin Bonenfant. Photo: Henry Grossman.
A considerable amount of the last hour of this well-over two-hour production therefore consists of dynamically choreographed combat activity in which nearly the entire cast, holding daggers, does martial arts thrusts, twists, and kicks. Accompanying them is an excitingly rhythmic score by Paul J. Prendergast, with Christopher Akerland’s dramatic lighting making a significant contribution.
Company of Julius Caesar. Photo: Gerry Goodstein..
Sometimes they divide into rival factions, other times the entire ensemble faces us as a single unit. Until most of them drop when shot from somewhere out front, you can’t help but appreciate the cardio workout everyone is getting. Which doesn’t answer the question as to where those sudden bursts of artillery fire are coming from—I don’t recall seeing any guns—or why these hapless combatants think all those fancy dagger thrusts are going to overpower bullets.
Brandon J. Dirden, Rocco Sisto. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Caesar’s assassination is bloody but not particularly novel while the killing by the mob of the Poet Cinna (Galen Molk), whose name, tragically, is the same as a conspirator, is theatrically interesting. The killers lay out a large sheet of plastic, red liquid is poured on it, Cinna lies down on the sheet, and the actors stomp loudly, each stomp symbolizing a stab wound, as Cinna flails about and becomes increasingly covered in “blood.” While it does offer visual interest, it’s also a moment that takes precedence in one’s memory over more important parts of Shakespeare’s play.
Galen Molk. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Overall, the acting is strong, with intense performances by Dirden as Brutus and Barbour as Antony, each delivering their famous speeches with passion and intelligence, although the nod goes to the latter. Partly that’s because of his freedom to move around, while Brutus is confined to that distant rooftop (?).
James Barbour, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Rocco Sisto. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As with the entire cast, each speaks in as naturalistic, non-rhetorical a fashion as possible, finding multiple meaningful transitions and insights in their lines. Sisto is a smooth, self-confident Caesar, with a touch of smarminess betraying how powerful he feels. Thankfully, he needn’t do anything Trump-like for us to get the point.
Julian Remulla, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar once more demonstrates the eternal universality of Shakespeare’s writing. The existence of dictatorial leaders (potential and actual) around the world today offers sufficient reason for revivals of the play (it not necessarily in such quick succession). So will it be true when these leaders are no longer with us.

Polonsky Shakespeare Center/Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through April 28