It could be easy enough to bury Oskar Eustis’ Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar,” now at the Delacorte Theatre, for being just a bit too heavy-handed. Having the Roman emperor and his wife Calpurnia look and act exactly like Donald and Melania Trump (brought perfectly to life by Gregg Henry and Tina Benko in relatively small roles) is admittedly gimmicky and somewhat unnecessary as the parallels between the ambitious Roman emperor and our current commander-in-chief are evident in the text.
Still, this modern concept, obvious as it is – and aided by David Rockwell’s clever contemporary American set – brings a much-needed immediacy (and a little comedy) to the Bard’s often dreary history play about the assassination of Caesar and its troubled aftermath. And Eustis’ message about the dangers of fascism and abuse of any power (including those who call for an assassination) couldn’t be more timely!
Moreover, there’s plenty to praise in Eustis’ casting of the show’s primary roles. As Brutus, the so-called “noblest Roman of them all,” the always impressive Corey Stoll is appropriately sober and heavy-hearted, making us sympathize with his uncertain feelings about his actions. In her one major scene as his concerned wife, Portia, Tony winner Nikki M. James is absolutely stunning in her ability to move us.
The great John Douglas Thompson dazzles once again, this time as the too-passionate Cassius, who engineers the conspiracy to bring down Caesar. He’s so full of fire in his heart (and perhaps elsewhere) that it’s amazing he doesn’t self-immolate. (That some of that fire may actually burn for Brutus is not without question, either.)
The evening’s most fascinating performance, though, belongs to Elizabeth Marvel, who has been cast as a female Marc Antony. (Many of the roles have been cast without regard to gender and race.). Adopting a southern accent and, at first, a rather meek, even obsequious, demeanor, Marvel seems to have adopted the manner of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
However -- once Antony addresses the masses and cleverly, duplicitously turns them to her cause, Marvel seems to grow a foot in stature and lower an octave in her speaking voice. Her command of the stage is remarkable to behold during this lengthy semi-monologue. And the end result, in which she almost effortlessly sways the crowd to her viewpoint, is positively chilling. (The power of speech once again proves just as potent as the power of a sword.)
Alas, the production doesn’t end there! Not even Stoll and Thompson can make the play’s final section, as Brutus and Cassius choose to end their lives rather than return to Rome as captives, even remotely interesting. Here as well, Eustis’ decision to run this two-hour version without intermission backfires, since you’ll be tired of lending your ears to petty philosophizing and navel-gazing long before the final bow.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Tina Benko, Teagle F. Bougere, Yusef Bulos, Eisa Davis, Robert Gilbert, Gregg Henry, Edward James Hyland, Nikki M. James, Christopher Livingston, Elizabeth Marvel, Chris Myers, Marjan Neshat, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson, Natalie Woolams-Torres, Isabel Arraiza, Erick Betancourt, Mayaa Boateng, Motell Foster, Dash King, Tyler La Marr, Gideon McCarty, Nick Selting, Alexander Shaw, Michael Thatcher, Justin Walker White,
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