Monday, June 12, 2017

Theater Review—“Julius Caesar” in Central Park

Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Oskar Eustis
Performances through June 18, 2017
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere and Elizabeth Marvel in Julius Caesar (photo: Joan Marcus)
Subtlety is the last thing anyone expects at Shakespeare in Central Park, but Oskar Eustis’s staging of Julius Caesar carries lack of nuance to new heights. This disjointed update of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the intersection of honor, corruption and patriotism envisions Caesar as Donald Trump, a buffoon who has gained the reins of power (no Russian interference here) and who gets his comeuppance at the hands of nationalist conspirators led by his close friend Brutus.

Whether he deserves to die is something Shakespeare famously juggles; after all, this is a play with no discernible villains. Brutus’s reasons for stabbing Caesar are compellingly explicated, then immediately afterward Marc Antony tells the assembled mourners that he’s “come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”—and proceeds to do the opposite. For his part, Eustis adds three words to “if Caesar had stabbed their mothers…on Fifth Avenue,” which gets a cheap laugh, and has Caesar’s wife Calpurnia speak with a thick Eatern European accent (even if blonde Tina Benko looks more like Ivanka than Melania). Such additions may be superficially amusing, but give little illumination.

Gregg Henry does quite well as Caesar despite being straitjacketed by a laundry list of Trump mannerisms: leering, stalking, gesticulating, bellowing and giving those infamous rough handshakes. Henry is even able to keep his dignity during a gratuitous nude scene. Elizabeth Marvel’s bizarre Marc Antony—the Orange Julius’s associate in a track suit who is referred to throughout as “she” or “her”—has an inexplicable (and wavering) hayseed accent that undercuts the rousing “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech.

As Brutus, Corey Stoll seems like he’s sleepwalking through the early scenes. That reticence is thrown into high relief when Brutus literally finds his voice after grabbing a microphone for his “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” speech, where he barks out his lines at the assembled throng. But there’s only a distant sense of a man fatally caught between personal friendship and patriotic duty.

John Douglas Thompson’s Cassius, although too excitable—even if this is partly explained by playing opposite Stoll—speaks with his usual fluency and impeccable diction. Impressive in a small part is Nikki M. James, whose powerful Portia provides all of the necessary emotional weight to her husband Brutus’s moral dilemma in a couple of fleet scenes. James deserves bigger roles in Central Park, like Cleopatra, whom she played wonderfully several seasons back in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at Stratford opposite Christopher Plummer.

Eustis stages some marvelously fluid crowd scenes, especially the lengthy dramatics surrounding Brutus and Antony’s post-assassination speeches. Eustis sprinkles members of the ensemble throughout the Delacorte Theater audience to bark out the masses’ impassioned responses, first pro-Brutus, then pro-Caesar and Antony, forcing us to intimately experience how fast such glistening oratory can so swiftly change minds. That’s what comes through most forcefully and clearly in an otherwise off-balance production.

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