Two years since it divided the New York theater community, distressed corporate sponsors and riled-up alt-right media followers, I have developed an unexpected appreciation for Oskar Eustis’ heavy-handed 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in which the title character famously became an unsubtle caricature of Donald Trump. Sure, it was messy and misguided on both artistic and commercial levels, but I am hard pressed to think of a more gutsy and provocative Shakespeare production to play New York since then.
I certainly prefer the Eustis production over Theatre for a New Audience’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (using the full First Folio title, perhaps to distinguish it from The Comedy of Julius Caesar) directed by Shana Cooper, which originated in February 2017 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As if anticipating any potential risk in presenting Julius Caesar, the press releases for the production take care to note that the production is “not set in one historic moment” and include long-winded quotes from Cooper, TFANA artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz and OSF artistic director Bill Rausch.
In recent seasons, TFANA has structured its annual offerings to include one relatively big production (usually a Shakespeare or other classic play directed by Arin Arbus) plus three more modestly scaled productions. The cast of Julius Caesar includes no fewer than 17 actors, including eight members of the original OSF company, plus Rocco Sisto (Caesar) and Brandon J. Dirden (Brutus).
Cooper (who is making her New York directing debut) is an assistant professor at Northwestern University and a member of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. While her Julius Caesar as a whole is flat and plodding, it contains some interesting concepts. It does not take place in Rome or the U.S. – or anywhere in particular for that matter besides what may be a construction site, containing stacks of sheet rock (serving as ramps between the audience and stage), cracking white panels, cloth coverings and scaffolds.
Much of the cast occasionally breaks out into mixed martial arts demonstrations, likely trying to physically channel the violence and anarchy depicted in the play – or at least enliven what is otherwise a dull production. The lead actors wear modern dress (with many looking like conventional bureaucrats), while the plebeians wear tribal attire and creepy masks. The relationships between many of the male characters (Brutus and Cassius, Caesar and Mark Anthony) are suggested to be more than just friendship and mutual admiration, which may help explain why their emotions and reactions run so high.
Sisto (a three-time Obie Award winner) is one of the best classical actors in New York. I recall him making an appearance as the messenger in the Public Theater’s otherwise disastrous production of The Bacchae in Central Park and winning a healthy round of exit applause just for his eloquent speaking. He is an especially grave, disdainful and unyielding Caesar, suggesting the type of characteristics that would lead the senators to preemptively prevent any chance that he will seize tyrannical powers. Dirden (Jitney, All the Way) makes for an unsure and downbeat Brutus, the kind of person who can be manipulated by the cunning. Matthew Amendt’s (Bernhardt/Hamlet) Cassius, with a black leather jacket and slicked-back hair, is proactive, persuasive and fashionable. He is also particularly catty (like a town gossip) as he speaks with Brutus about his concerns over Caesar’s ambitions.
Unfortunately, the matinee I attended (very late in the run) appeared to be less than half full, even with a talkback scheduled following the performance. On the other hand, TFANA (which has not yet announced its 2019-2020 season) should be able to close the current season on a high note with a remount of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s experimental race drama Fairview, which was originally produced by Soho Rep and just won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While I personally was not a fan of Fairview when I saw it last summer, it ought to attract a big crowd given its high critical pedigree.