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Here’s an unsolicited suggestion to artists of all genres: How about laying off mock representations of the murder of the president? As the Kathy Griffin imbroglio recently demonstrated, it’s generally not well-received. More to the point, Donald Trump has been president for less than a year — I know, it feels a lot longer — but using him to make satirical points has already become cliché. Case in point: the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in which the assassinated title character is portrayed as you-know-who, an artistic choice that inevitably has raised eyebrows over at Fox News.
There’s no doubting the political passion underlying the project; its director Oskar Eustis has said he conceived it on Election Night. This modern-dress rendition thus depicts Caesar (Gregg Henry) as a swaggering blond-haired vulgarian clad in an expensive suit, with a red tie dangling well below his waistline, who takes baths in a golden tub and makes elaborate hand gestures. His wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko) wears sleek designer dresses and speaks in a thick Slavic accent. One of the conspirators wraps himself in a “Resist” banner, and there are more protestors on the Delacorte stage than in front of Trump Tower.
We get the idea immediately, and since it doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting after that we just as quickly lose interest. Its would-be provocative central conceit notwithstanding, this is a bland, unevenly acted production of Shakespeare’s play whose main virtues are its fast pace — it runs two hours without an intermission — and vigorous energy. Employing a huge ensemble of bit players as Roman citizens, the show frequently spills out into the theater’s aisles, fully immersing us in the otherwise tiresome action.
In a preshow announcement, the director promises that he hasn’t messed with the text, save for one exception that we’ll know when we hear it. And sure enough, the paraphrasing of Trump’s infamous comment about how he wouldn’t lose any of his supporters even if he committed a certain act on Fifth Avenue is impossible to miss. The line certainly gets the intended laugh, but it feels cheap.
Along with the use of cellphones and other modern touches such as, you guessed it, pussy hats, the production also features a gender-reversed casting of one of the major roles: Elizabeth Marvel — a veteran theater actress who has become more widely known recently thanks to her terrific turns on Homeland and House of Cards — plays a tracksuit-wearing Marc Antony, speaking in a Southern accent that comes and goes. The character’s sex change doesn’t feel particularly jarring, but Marvel, normally a brilliant actress, delivers an uncharacteristically shrill, mannered turn that is only partially redeemed by her stirring rendition of the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech.
As is often the case with the Central Park productions, the cast is a mixed bag. As Brutus, Corey Stoll lacks charisma (not normally a problem for him) and delivers the verse prosaically. Henry and Benko, clearly relishing their caricatures … I mean characterizations, are enjoyable; Nikki M. James is deeply moving as Portia; and Teagle F. Bougere is a solid Casca. Best of all is John Douglas Thompson, who invests Cassius with both cunning and dignity and is a joy to listen to throughout.
Further illustrating the production’s lack of subtlety is David Rockwell’s ugly-as-sin set design, featuring large barriers festooned with political flyers; banners depicting D.C. landmarks and the Constitution; and what looks like the halves of a giant gear mechanism. The last feels ironically emblematic of this Julius Caesar, a production whose aesthetic gears are grinding too noisily and predictably.
Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York
Cast: Isabel Arraiza, Tina Benko, Erick Betancourt, Mayaa Boateng, Teagle F. Bougere, Yusef Bulos, Eisa Davis, Motell Foster, Robert Gilbert, Gregg Henry, Edward James Hyland, Nikki M. James, Dash King, Tyler La Marr, Christopher Livingston, Elizabeth Marvel, Gideon McCarty, Chris Myers, Marjan Neshat, Nick Selting, Alexander Shaw, Corey Stoll, Michael Thatcher, John Douglas Thompson, Justin Walker White, Natalie Woolams-Torres
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Oskar Eustis
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Music & soundscapes: Bray Poor
Presented by the Public Theater
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