A recorded announcement from The Public’s artistic director at the start of “Julius Caesar”—the first of this summer’s two Shakespeare in the Park offerings—is intended as a head’s up to audiences that a single line of dialogue has been altered from the original text.
Quickly, the snippet Oskar Eustis is referencing becomes clear.
Brutus, Cassius and Casca are contemplating the blind affection felt by the Roman populace for their new commander-in-chief: “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue, they would have … no less,” intones Casca, who soon will participate in one of literature’s most famous assassinations.
Eustis, directing at Shakespeare in the Park for the first time in nearly a decade, isn’t going for subtlety with this “Julius Caesar.” In a production that may as well have been renamed “Donald Trump,” the conquering hero (Gregg Henry) puts a hand on the crotch of his Slavic wife, picks on a “reporter” planted in the audience, posts to social media and bathes in a golden tub.
Populated with actors from no fewer than three of TV’s politically styled dramas, this “Caesar” builds on anti-Trump asides forced into new children’s musicals this season and addressed in full-scale works like Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall.” Need we remind you, Broadway’s next big opening is “1984”?
Still, it’s shocking to see a band of conspirators in modern dress take turns plunging a dagger into the body of a leader so clearly modeled on America’s own. At least one audience member at the performance I attended last week tossed his program into the aisle and stormed out, hissing unprintables. (Breitbart isn’t thrilled about this show, either.)
News of the production’s specifics has angered some of The Public Theater’s biggest supporters, too. Delta Air Lines said it would discontinue its sponsorship as the organization’s official airline; Bank of America said it would halt financial aid for this production, but would continue to support the theater.
First, “Julius Caesar” capitalizes on the unusually relevant pop culture associations brought along by its actors. Henry last year appeared on TV’s “Scandal” as Hollis Doyle, a presidential candidate prone to utterances like: “If you’re some pesky little border-crosser, you won’t be welcome.”
His Caesar blusters and leers with every line, a significant departure from the usual portrayal of the Roman general as a magisterial orator. It’s quite a performance.
Elizabeth Marvel, a one-time presidential aspirant on Netflix’s “House of Cards” and the president-elect of Showtime’s “Homeland,” is Marc Antony, bopping around the stage in a jumpsuit fashioned after the American flag. Perhaps the outfit is meant to represent her rough athleticism—I half-expected Ivan Drago to come out and challenge her, as if she were a female Rocky Balboa.
In the play’s essential funeral oration, Marvel’s Antony shifts decisively from supporting Caesar’s assassins to openly fomenting mutiny—and mutiny, when it comes, arrives with a surprisingly large number of cast members and with gunfire aimed into the audience. That’s a theatrical conceit that will always be an enormous mistake in my view, but is especially one here, during this summer of Kathy Griffin’s discontent. Are we not an anxious enough bunch already?
Corey Stoll, a congressman in an early “House of Cards” story arc, is Brutus, who betrays his friend in the service of lofty intentions. Stoll puts forward the most conventional characterization of the leads, behaving in a manner that is contained and even lordly.
John Douglas Thompson is a charismatic, athletic Cassius, also hewing fairly true to the character’s frequent portrayal as moody and impulsive.
Tina Benko’s Calpurnia, an obvious riff on Melania Trump, has a playful rapport with her husband, particularly in the big scene that has them contorting themselves into that golden tub, where she tries to stop him from making his way to the senate on the Ides of March.
Nikki M. James (“The Book of Mormon”), as Portia, offers a traditional portrayal that syncs up nicely with Stoll’s. She exhibits both the passion of a woman in love, and the gravitas of a noble.
David Rockwell’s intriguing set is a backdrop of patriotic imagery and two enormous gears, which will come together to form the senate chamber where Caesar’s well-staged assassination takes place. Costuming is contemporary.
“Julius Caesar,” through June 18 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Free tickets are distributed beginning at 12 p.m. the day of each performance. For complete information, see publictheater.org.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn