Julius, O Julius, Wherefore Art Thou Julius?

Shakespeare in the Park is irresistible because. . . Central Park (photo by Joan Marcus).

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.

Calpurnia (Tina Benko) uses body language to dissuade her Caesar (Gregg Henry) from leaving his home on his fateful day. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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.

Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) seal their deal. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At Best A Tepid Tempest in the Park (Reprinted by permission of Catch & Release, the Columbia Journal Online

It is downright unpatriotic to be a New Yorker and walk out on a performance at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in the middle of A Shakespeare in the Park production. But that’s just what I did. After I stood in the sun for two hours waiting to be handed two free tickets, I looked the city’s gift horse in the mouth by throwing my hands at mid-show and walking – no, running – away. It felt blasphemous. It felt treacherous. It felt good.

The air was cold, the seats were hard, the show stank, and after forty years of attending what Shakespeare in the Park I was lucky enough to get tickets for, I felt like I had earned the right to stalk away in an exasperated huff. Especially since the Public apparently feels like it has earned the right to present so unimpressive a production as this one.

The critics have been generous with the show.  While they have found some fault, overall, they are loathe to come down hard on it, and this perplexes me. Having spent much of my life studying theater and acting, directing student productions, reading copious amounts of criticism and history, taking a dramaturgy practicum at Columbia, I know that even if some people disagree with my assessment, I cannot possibly be alone. If any other production with such a high profile failed so miserably as this one, the critics would be screaming their displeasure at the city. But The Public Theater’s annual Delacorte starfest is a sacred institution, dependent on donations and sponsorships, and no one wants to be the little boy pointing brazenly at the emperor’s nudity.

Which is too bad. Because good criticism should make the program grow stronger; in a perfect world, sponsors and patrons would want to invest more money in the idea that making really good theater requires making some really terrible mistakes. That to suggest that something is not as good as it should be is to encourage it to reach its own potential.

Why, then,  does my feeling of treachery persist when I say that the production was flat, that it created no magic and no island, that it had no sorcerer of any kind performing miracles in a play that, at its best, is one miracle after another?

There was a time when I attended the shows at the Delacorte knowing that I would see great acting, thoughtful design, coherent directing. In this production of The Tempest, the directing is unfocused, and the actors get away with blunders that would not be tolerated in the remotest hinterland productions. Once upon a time, actors donated their time and in return found grateful fans, who followed their careers. This show featured an actor who was cast despite the fact that he is absolutely wrong for the part simply because he is a beloved New York icon.

Audiences come to the shows to see faces they recognize from elsewhere. The star-studded Shakespeare in the Park productions have turned into the kind of stuff tourists’ dreams are made on, just like the mini Chocolate theme park called the M & M experience that draws out-of-towners off the tour buses at midtown. So casting is not always as thoughtfully executed as it should be.

I knew better from the start.  I should have eschewed this production of The Tempest altogether.  I was aware of this beforehand and was reminded while waiting on the line at the designated 135th Street spot for ticket distribution when one of the Public Theater pages came out to tout the show. He announced with great pride that Prospero would be “played by Sam Waterston, whom you all know from his amazing work as Jack McCoy on Law and Order.” I groaned. I did not want to see Jack McCoy as Prospero.

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Sam Waterston, as Prospero, and Francesca Carpanini, as Miranda, in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest. (photo ©Joan Marcus, NY Daily News)

Let me digress here and say that I admire Sam Waterston’s work enormously. In Grace and Frankie, where his conflicted, ambivalent Saul is the soul of the ensemble, he is the reason I watched every episode despite the fact that the other cast members failed to convince me they were who or what they purported to be. I was enthralled by his work in The Killing Fields and always wanted more from him when I watched Law and Order. But when I traveled to New Haven to see Stoppard’s Travesties, which featured Waterston, I was sorely disappointed. Waterston’s mumbly, hesitant speech patterns didn’t capture the rhythm of Stoppard’s writing. The play was uneven, and the speeches tended to be long and ponderous, even for Stoppard, and Waterston was not nailing them. Spoken with aplomb, Stoppard’s speeches, even at their wordiest, are melodious and lyrical, downright Shakespearean. Waterston’s delivery made them seem clunky, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual. So why did I even bother to get tickets for a Shakespeare play in which he would play a character with some of the longest, most ponderous speeches in the canon?

Two reasons. Because I could. And because I should. Who would turn down an opportunity see a free production of one of Shakespeare’s best plays, directed by Michael Greif, a Tony winner, one of Broadway’s best directors? Who would not want to witness a spectacle produced by a Broadway-caliber production team? Well, I was wrong in thinking I did.

Mediocrity is, apparently, the measure of excellence in a Delacorte show.

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Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Trinculo in The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, now playing at the Delacorte Theater (photo © Sara Krulwich, NY Times)

The highlight of the evening at my Delacorte was Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Trinculo scene opposite Danny Mastrogorgio as Stephano and Louis Cancelmi as Caliban. Ferguson was good. He played Trinculo exactly as he plays his character on Modern Family, vascillating between over-the-top-reactions to things and understated asides. Stephano was okay. At least he was almost understandable. But Caliban seemed confused by the character he was playing, could not choose which of several accents to rely on, had no inkling as to how his body should move, and it was nearly impossible to catch his words, which were not falling trippingly from his tongue. The scene is pure Commedia fun as written; there is little any production could do to ruin it, but if the words were more critical, even that scene would have been lost.

No one in the cast, with the exception of Cotter Smith in the part of Prospero’s brother Antonio, was able to speak the speech. Waterston spoke as though he had pebbles on his tongue, and half his mouth was sewn together. Ariel might have been articulating just fine, but since he was whispering much of the time, nothing was reaching my ears. Miranda shouted everything. There were no nuances of emotions from her, just ebullient shouting to accompany her juvenile physicality. She seemed more like an over-excited six-year-old than a young woman encountering sexual awakening, and watching her I was reminded of a classmate of my daughter’s in her performing arts magnet high school, who had been Annie on Broadway and played every part, even scenes of quiet contemplation, with the same musical comedy hugeness.  As a high school theater director, I held my neophyte teenage actors in our several productions of plays by the Bard to a far higher standard than any of these credentialed professionals seemed to reach for.

It is worthless to go on about the acting. It was just the tip of the iceberg. The opening scene, the tempest itself, was lovely. I am a great fan of theatrical minimalism, of letting the actors carry the “sell” of a set, and in the opening, it all worked well. But as soon as the initial storm died, so did the success of the staging, the appropriateness of the design, the creation of the world. There was nothing to make me believe that I was encountering characters cast adrift on a seemingly hostile, enchanted island; they were simply pretenders stomping through roles on a stagnant playground in the center of a stage at the Delacorte Theatre.

Given how lacking I found the show, I can’t help wondering why I am already planning to seek tickets to Cymbelline, a play that is rarely done well?   The answer is plain, really. Because I’m New Yorker. It’s my patriotic duty.