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A CurtainUp Review
Julius CaesarEditor's Note
Before going into the particulars of this rendition of Julius Caesar, an obvious question arises: Will this production come back to bite the hand of the director who has brought it to theatrical life? After all, didn't we just witness comedian Kathy Griffin get fired a week ago from her CNN job for being part of a photo shoot that presented a bloody decapitated prosthetic head that resembled Trump?
Well, fortunately Eustis has some built-in protection at hand: the Bard himself. Shakespeare has laid the groundwork so well in his play that Eustis can confidently point to its dramaturgy and go toe-to-toe with any right-wing type who might find offense with his contemporary interpretation.
. First, Shakespeare never endorsed tyrannicide; nor did he cast moral judgment on any principal in the play. In fact, the Bard was as elusive in his political leanings as his religious ones. Consequently, his stance on Caesar, along with the other principals, is impossible to pin down.
Who—or what—is Caesar? Gallons of scholarly ink have been spilled to respond to this slippery question. But the only real answer is that Caesar is a conundrum, a master politician who knows how to build up his image for the public, but never reveals who he is. Secondly, the aftermath of Caesar's assassination in the play is utter chaos. For all of the chief conspirators' high-flown rhetoric about protecting the Republic, Brutus and Cassius high-tail it out of Rome once they learn that Antony's tribute to Caesar has turned the citizens against them.
That said, the acting is mostly strong. Gregg Henry in the eponymous role of Caesar nails his part as a strawberry-blonde Man of Destiny. Henry, who has already had a go at caricaturing Trump in the TV show Scandal, gets to do it here in real time and in a Shakespearean key. He has less than 150 lines, and is in only three scenes, but he makes each line and moment on stage count. Tina Benko, playing opposite him as a Slavic-accented Calpurnia, gives a non-conventional interpretation to her role. Most Calpurnias I've seen look sculpted out of cold marble. Not Benko. She is chic, glamorous, sexy. It's easy to picture her sipping a good vintage wine before retiring. Nikki M. James inhabits Portia with intelligence and spirit; too bad that she doesn't have a larger role.
Less effective is Corey Stoll as the patriot Brutus. Stoll lacks the requisite magnetism for this tragic part. He's competent without being charismatic. Elizabeth Marvel, as a cross-gendered Marc Antony, is a firebrand and then some. She delivers as the loyal and eloquent friend of Caesar, and later on, as one of the triumvirs ruthlessly bent on avenging his murder. Last, but not least, the always-amazing John Douglas Thompson brings the right intensity and cynicism to Cassius.
No complaints about the creative team. David Rockwell's scenic design is semi-abstract, with a huge gear-like apparatus on stage that morphs into the archway of the Senate House in Act 3. Rockwell has also designed a series of rotating panels that feature American iconic images (think the Constitution, the Lincoln Memorial, and so forth); also simple landscapes to suggest orchard scenes. In addition to these props, there is a grand entranceway for Caesar and the Roman patricians to enter through. There's also a pulpit employed for the assassination scene and the dual orations of Brutus and Antony. Convenient trap doors enable characters to exit in a nanosecond. And, oh yes. . . instead of a tent for Brutus and Cassius pitched near the plains of Philippi, Rockwell has designed a plain military bunker. It might not synch with the text but it does ring true with the twenty-first century.
Paul Tazewell's modern-day costumes are apropos. Caesar is outfitted in an executive suit and alternately a royal blue or blood-red tie that drops below his belt. Calpurnia is dressed in salmon-colored couture and 2-inch high heels. Marc Antony, as the mover and shaker appropriately wears a jogging suit. The rest of the cast look equally posh or not-so-posh but definitely au courant.
In spite of the fact that this is a tragedy, there's comic relief in this production. The domestic scene where Calpurnia tries to persuade her husband to stay home rather than go to the Senate House has been inventively staged. You first see Caesar naked in a gold-colored bathtub, in which Calpurnia joins him, clothes and all. When the conspirators arrive, Caesar rises from the tub in the buff to greet them. Without missing a beat, he grabs a robe and asks them to join him for a cup of wine before going with them to the Senate House. No doubt Eustis has staged this scene partly for laughs. But it also succeeds as a proleptic moment that allows us to see the heroic Caesar as a flesh-and-blood human being, a man who is vulnerable to his supposed friends and senators.
Although Eustis improvises on Shakespeare's work in a visual sense, he remains faithful to the text, except for trimming it down and inserting one line in Act 1: "If Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue, they would have done no less.” At first blush, Casca's remark seems witty. But this topical reference, like the later appearance of the cell phone tossed into Brutus' orchard in Act 2, doesn't really mesh organically with the play or sustain the dramatic tone.
Whether or not you give a thumbs up—or down to Mr. Eustis on mak ing Trump a stand-in for Caesar, you've got to hand it to him for mounting a Julius Caesar that is larger-than-life and robust. Politically correct or not, his Julius Caesar is sure to linger in people's memories long after its final performance in Central Park.
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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Directed by Oskar Eustis
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Cast: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 (Titinis, 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); also 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 (Pindar
(scenic design),(costume design), (lighting design), (sound design), and Sets: David Rockwell
Costumes: Paul Tazewell
Lights: Kenneth Posner
Sound: Jessica Paz
Hair, wig, makeup design: Leah J. Loukas
Original music and soundscapes: Bray Poor
Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Running Time: 2 hours without an intermission
From 5/23/17; opening 6/12/17; closing 6/18/17
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