The main problem with the Public Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, now playing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, is that its frame is warped. Director Oskar Eustis has set the tale first in New York City then in Washington, D.C., in the time of our current great distress. He has dressed his Julius Caesar as a lean and hungry Trump, who struts and frets his overlong hour upon the stage as a great buffoon. This Caesar plunges stupidly into the senators’ trap, dying ignominiously in a moment closer to commedia dell’arte than tragic drama. His death is a relief to us all. The mayhem that ensues seems unmotivated.
It’s a silly notion from the get-go likening the Carrot-in-Chief to the second noblest Roman of them all. It is akin to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK. We’ve studied Caesar in history, in literature. Anyone who took Latin read of Caesar’s exploits in his own words. We know Julius Caesar. That guy in the White House is no Julius Caesar.
The fault is not in the stars but in our President. The players have a firm grasp on their characters, but #45 is anything but the brilliant tactician, valiant soldier, and learned scholar Julius Caesar was. In his will, the real Caesar named the people of Rome among his heirs, and much of his property was turned over to the city. He was, in theory at least, a proponent of human rights. In Shakespeare’s version of the tale, he is a true patriot, whose vaulting ambition undermines his love of country. As trusted as a politician might be, that Caesar is an upholder of the Republic, a servant of the people.
The current American POTUS believes in nothing and in no one but himself. His ambition may sometimes pose as patriotism, but he abhors the body politic and disdains his fellow citizens. He is a narcissist, a pompous blowhard, whose rise to power is entirely the folly of the rabble that Marullus addresses at the top of the play as, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” These modern day “hard hearts of Rome” have raised up a feeble prince as their savior, and it is his inadequacy that destroys the current production at its core.
Theoretically, this play is an apt mirror unto our times. It’s about the corruption of power, about the way in which the fickle masses aggrandize false prophets, the way we easily relinquish our power to undeserving leaders. And what is art if not the means by which we see ourselves? As Brutus tells Cassius, “ . . . the eye sees not itself/ But by reflection.” If the play were the thing wherein to catch the conscience of a despot, then the slings and arrows of post-Pompey Rome should be the perfect foil for our present morass.
But Shakespeare’s play is lost in a jumble of ill-fitting implications. Having chosen to contemporize the play, Eustis could have preserved it and made it work in the way that some of our best popular entertainment works. Julius Caesar is as much Frank Underwood (House of Cards) or Don Draper (Mad Men) as he is the self-proclaimed Roman god. If Eustis had cast a Trump-ish leader without the multiple specifics that make this one exclusively Donald Trump, the play might have prevailed. It might have been set anywhere in the US, the title character played as any generic American politician. The satire would be obvious. The audience would extrapolate the underlying meaning without graphic detail. The writing is strong enough to work without the cartoonishly overblown visual references this director supplies. But Eustis doesn’t trust us.
His Julius Caesar is more about itself than it is about anything verging on what Shakespeare created. This JC strides the earth like a Donald-cloned Colossus, replete with the long red tie and the bright yellow pompadour. His Calpurnia (Tina Benko) walks with a sneer and speaks with an exaggerated Slovenian accent. There is no doubt who these two are. Eustis is so afraid we won’t get it, he even adds words to Caesar’s opening statements, having him directly address the good people of New York, telling them he is the greatest, that he will please them bigly. Then, just to be sure we haven’t missed it, he sets the scene preceding the murder in a bathtub full of steaming water. Calpurnia, rolling all her Rs and jumbling her sentence structure, almost succeeds in seducing him into staying at home on this dangerous Ides of March. But when the conspirators arrive and convince him he must to the Senate and receive his just rewards, this Orange Julius stands so that everyone can see his shriveled little appendage. Thanks, Mr. Eustis.
The production definitely improved after Caesar’s death. But even then, it reminded me more of a high school theater’s attempt at satire. The addition of crowds chanting “We rise” and “Resist” and other all-too-recognizable standards was cheap, amateurish. The hand was so overplayed that the overall experience was numbing.
Which was too bad on many levels.
Some wonderful acting got lost in the melee. Corey Stoll’s brooding Brutus is a thoughtful intellectual. But played in the light of the stunningly farcical Caesar, he seems more like the supercilious guy from the SNL “Deep Thoughts” routine of years ago. John Douglas Thompson is a powerful Cassius, whose ardor and sincerity work well when he is in scenes with Stoll’s Brutus but look ridiculous when he’s anywhere near the other characters and the absurdity of the staging. Stoll and Thompson are in a play of their own. Whenever they must interact with the rest of the company, they are like characters from a Pirandello scenario experimenting with interpretations. Especially when they are playing scenes opposite this feeble Julius Caesar. Or Marc Anthony.
Elizabeth Marvel’s Anthony, with an on-again-off-again Southern accent, is as much a cartoon as the slain hero she mourns. She reminded me more of the television version of Wonder Woman than of anyone cunning enough to have led the retaliation forces that shape the play’s action. I love that a woman is entrusted with this role. I wish the actor, who has played so many powerful, strong-willed, charismatic leaders in her past, had had license to embody a soldier I might have believed.
Nor is Gregg Henry culpable. He plays Julius Caesar exactly as the production demands. Which makes for an overlong SNL skit – where he’d give Alex Baldwin some real competition – rather than anything close to real dramatic art. If this were a sketch by the Uptown Citizens’ Brigade, I’d give him a standing ovation. Alas, it’s Shakespeare in the Park.
And something I’m a bit unclear about here. When Julius Caesar is assassinated, there is no question that the man with the tight suit and the impervious swagger is the present POTUS. Which means that in essence, it is #45 who is stabbed in effigy. How is that not treason? How does this not cross the line? And when the line is crossed, how is the satirist any less officious and self-important than his subject?
It’s all well and good to time bend, gender bend, and story bend in Shakespeare. Two Verona gentlemen dancing blithely in ‘70s hip-hop psychedilia, a midsummer night’s dream transpiring in a floating phantasm of umbrellas, and Coriolanus as a Nazi general are easily acceptable. Each is a fitting transformation. Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that breathe universally over time and across any era. But in order for the re-juxtaposing to work, the basic assumption must be appropriate.
In the end, Julius Caesar is not a comedy of errors, and it doesn’t play well as one.