Review: ‘Julius Caesar’ at Public Theater – Delacorte Theater in Central Park

By Jonathan Spira on 18 June 2017
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William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” published as “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” 400 years ago, is one of several of Shakespeare’s plays based on actual events in Roman history. While Julius Caesar is the title character, the play focuses on Brutus and his conflicts over his friendship with Caesar, his patriotism, and his honor.

Reinterpreted for the Trump era, the Public Theater’s production has drawn criticism in some circles for its depiction of Caesar as a Donald Trump-like figure. All of the characters appear in modern-day dress, some sport mobile phones. Caesar himself exhibits a demeanor at times worthy of a petulant child and of course has a gold bathtub. Caesar’s stylish wife, Calpurnia, has a Slavic (but decidedly not Slovenian) accent and pulls her hand away from her husband when he attempts to hold hands walking in a procession.

But such updating is nothing new. Throughout the play’s history, it’s been staged to draw parallels between contemporary events and those in Caesar’s days including a 1937 production by Orson Welles at the Mercury Theater in New York where the costumes were intended to evoke the rise of fascism and national socialism in Germany and Italy. A 2015 production by the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence had Caesar as a woman in a pantsuit.

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What’s remarkable is how the original Shakespearean text need not be changed to fit changing circumstances. In the Public’s production, its artistic director, Oskar Eustis, added but three words to the original text (which has been shortened to a runtime just under two hours with no intermission) in the line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less,” namely “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma. The change doesn’t go unnoticed by the audience, which strongly voiced its approval.

Indeed, centuries later, the piece can still be polarizing. The night before I attended, a protester charged the stage screaming, “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right” (spoiler alert: this was during the assassination scene). She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

The colorblind casting that made the Public’s production (and subsequent productions) of “Hamilton” so incredible is amplified by gender-blind casting as well: who knew Marc Antony (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Marvel) had a southern drawl?

The play gets progressively more intense: by the third act I felt like one of some 1,800 Roman citizens, listening to Marc Antony’s subtle yet eloquent funeral oration for Caesar in the market, one of Shakespeare’s most recognizable lines and one of his best examples of rhetorical irony at work. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” he begins, deftly turning public opinion against the conspirators who had just committed regicide by manipulating the emotions of the common people.

As Roman protestors appear out of nowhere loudly voicing their opinions, many audience members seemingly join the chorus of voices, so to speak. It made the mere act of sitting in my seat, dead center in the Delacorte, feel dangerous and possibly even subversive.

While parallels to the Trump presidency are being drawn, it’s important to remember that both the Shakespearean and actual Caesar, played with such spirit by Gregg Henry, was a war hero, a highly regarded statesman, and a noted author of Latin prose. When offered the crown by Marc Antony in the senate, he turns it down three times, much in the manner that George Washington would give up power at the end of the revolutionary war as the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief and again at the end of his second term as president when he refused entreaties to seek a third term.

Caesar’s friend, Brutus, played with such resolve by Corey Stoll, is among the senators who fear tyranny after Caesar is proclaimed dictator perpetuo by the Senate.

The play ends with a tribute to Brutus by Antony, who proclaims that Brutus has remained “the noblest Roman of them all” because he was the only conspirator who acted, in his mind, for the good of Rome.

Although “Julius Caesar” closes June 18, the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park series will continue in mid-July with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a production not to be missed.

THE DETAILS

Julius Caesar
Public Theater – Delacorte Theater
81 Central Park West
New York, N.Y. 10023
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
www.publictheater.org

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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