Like its titular hero, The Public Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy Julius Caesar may fall victim to its own reputation. The preening demagogic Roman leader, played here by the vastly entertaining Gregg Henry, is given a garishly colored pompadour, below-the-waist tie (yes, with a suit, not a toga), familiar hand gestures and a model wife (Tina Benko) with a strong Eastern European accent. The drawing of that parallel has not gone unnoticed by Public Theater funders like Delta Airlines and the Bank of America, both of which have pulled funding from the production. (At press time, Time Warner was still standing by its commitment to the theater, however). What’s more, the open-air production has been interrupted by pro-Trump protesters, one of whom recently stormed the stage, reportedly decrying what she termed the normalization of violence against the right.
But, while it’s true that Caesar’s onstage murder at the Delacorte is as bloody as any you’re likely to see, as any ninth grader should be able to tell you, Shakespeare’s play is hardly an incitement to commit violence against even a tyrant, let alone a leader who, like Caesar himself, merely has the potential to become one (as who does not?). Indeed, Caesar is killed almost exactly halfway through the play, and what follows the sly parallels of the first half is not exactly encouraging for potential assassins.
Caesar rules the beginning of this drama, and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis’ stylish production takes full advantage of that fact to play to his Manhattan-centric audience’s probable political leanings by pulling out all the parodic parallels, down to having the elegantly dressed Calpurnia (Benko) brush aside her husband’s hand but later join him in a giant golden bathtub. But the energetic Trumpian satire, however entertaining you do or don’t find it, may do the play a disservice. The controversial leader is played largely for laughs, and what follows in the second half of the play is far from funny, as Rome succumbs to anarchy and mob violence.
David Rockwell’s ominously American imperialist set, created of gigantic gears that may or may not interlock at any given moment, and Jessica Paz’s brooding, abrasive score (reminiscent of House of Cards) suggest the chaos and violence that await in the second act. But the strongest connecting factor between the two halves of the play – the sitcom-ish satire and the post-apocalyptic terrorscape that follows – is the conscience-tormented Brutus himself, whose motives appear to be the purest (or at least the most considered) of all the conspirators. Played by a commanding Corey Stoll, he’s the only one who seems to be acting out of patriotism – or to have thought through his actions, beyond assessing how likely he is to be punished for them. Of the others, Eisa Davis as Decius is particularly amusing in her mocking and manipulation of the great man, and John Douglas Thompson is always a standout (here as Cassius). But Brutus is the one who carries through as a character to the second act, even as his attempts at fairness open the door for Marc Anthony (Elizabeth Marvel) to let slip the dogs of war with her incendiary elegy.
Antony’s famous, impassioned and strategic speech, movingly delivered in an unexpected but effective southern drawl, sets into motion everything else that ensues. This Anthony doesn’t just show Caesar’s slashed clothing, she reveals the wounds on his body to bring round the Romans who had been willing to accept his death without protest. And her apparently real grief and undoubtedly tactical rhetoric turn the populace from joy at Caesar’s death to indignation at the massacres that result.
Indeed, if Caesar is the prevailing spirit of the play’s first half, it’s the Roman people who take over in the second – and the Public’s production emphasizes both how easy they are to manipulate and how inescapable they can be. A startling number of actors are strewn strategically throughout the audience, at the ready to go storming onto the stage, respond to the orations, fight in the aisles and kill. The violent, fickle mob here, in their undeniable power, seems meant to evoke a desire to have that single ruler back, particularly one who, like Caesar, has a strong military record, a history of helping the poor and a past in which he has turned down the throne repeatedly. Is the Public’s goal to criticize the very public for which it’s named? The play itself provides precedent, but perhaps in the end the real indignity to the president is that his character winds up being just a bit player in a much larger drama.