NEW YORK — If your tendency is to take absolutely literally what happens to every character who crosses a stage, then you should indeed be avoiding at all costs the terrific modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that has audiences cheering nightly in Central Park.
It will no doubt give you the heebie-jeebies — as it apparently did the quivering executives of Bank of America and Delta Air Lines — to see Gregg Henry, the Caesar of director Oskar Eustis’s brisk and penetrating production, decked out in a blond pompadour and solid red and blue ties extending below his waist. Because at a key point (in a play that every kid in America reads in ninth grade), Caesar meets his end in a bloody scene in the Roman Senate.
“Now hold on a darn minute,” I hear some of you saying. “You’re telling me that a character resembling Donald Trump is fake-stabbed to death in a 400-year-old piece of fictionalized history by costumed people trained in the art of make-believe? Someone call out the National Guard!”
Others among you, I imagine, are better equipped to grasp the stunning information that seeing something enacted on a stage doesn’t mean you should go out and do it yourself. “Okay,” I hear members of this cohort commenting. “So this still doesn’t sound as if it’s the subtlest theatrical conceit that’s ever been dreamed up. But I am curious about how the idea is treated. Is it done well?”
To this second group, I say, Eustis’s “Julius Caesar” is without a doubt worth your time — and not because the allusions to contemporary politics, though compelling, are particularly seditious, or groundbreaking. A 2012 production of the play by Minneapolis’s august Guthrie Theatre and the New York-based Acting Company presented Caesar in the guise of a black actor who was meant to suggest President Obama. That version aroused none of the anger and condemnations in the ultraconservative media that have made the new Shakespeare-in-the-Park incarnation a target. So much so that the aforementioned corporate partners of the Public Theater, which stages free summertime Shakespeare in the Delacorte Theater, dropped their financial support of the show. (Officials of American Express, which doesn’t even contribute to Shakespeare in the Park, only to the Public Theater, issued a statement saying it didn’t “condone” the interpretation — just so that the company could be on the record as being anti-assassination.)
Some of the lampooning of the Trump administration is indeed fun: Caesar’s supermodel wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko), speaks in what sounds like a Slovenian accent and dismissively bats away her husband’s hand, and Octavius (Robert Gilbert) appears on the battlefield in a blazer covered by a bulletproof vest, a la those much-derided photos of Jared Kushner in Iraq. (The scene in which Calpurnia attempts to prevent Caesar from meeting his cruel destiny occurs cheekily in their high-end bathtub.) But what feels first-rate here is not so much these editorial-cartoon interludes as the potent handling of the drama’s tragic dimension — for the sensational murder of Caesar, as orchestrated by Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson), doesn’t free the Republic from the grips of a tyrant.
Rather, as the production makes so abundantly clear — in part by turning Brutus and Cassius’s followers into an Occupy Wall Street-style brigade of overmatched protesters — the revolution fails, paving the way for the re-installment of autocratic rule.
David Rockwell’s sets, redolent of images of Western democracy, and Paul Tazewell’s office-attire wardrobe inject into this “Julius Caesar” an apt “House of Cards” vibe: In this case, you could say, the dastardly machinations are occurring in the House of Bard’s. The outstanding Stoll and Thompson contribute mightily to the sense of this as one of the best-spoken and liveliest “Julius Caesars” in recent memory. It makes sense to give the play a modern context, partly because the assorted stentorian characters of “Julius Caesar” come across on so many occasions as remote, one-dimensional and interchangeable. Here, some admirable texture is given not only to Brutus and Cassius, whose alliance feels as if it is deeply felt and believably fraternal, but also to such secondary figures as Brutus’s wife, Portia (Nikki M. James), co-conspirator Casca (Teagle F. Bougere) and Cinna the Poet (Yusef Bulos).
Best of all is Elizabeth Marvel, who, cast as the oratorically gifted friend to Caesar, Marc Antony, lives up to her surname. The no-holds-barred emotionality she brings to the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” eulogy for Caesar, declaimed in a vaguely Southern accent, is an entirely fresh approach to a speech an audience might have felt it already knew inside and out. Eustis’s staging, with a veritable army of young actors reacting from seats and aisles in the audience, reminds you of the eternally seductive power of political language, and of the gift great politicians have to use it to move the public. (Where verisimilitude is concerned, though, one of the production’s less credible elements is the impressive range of vocabulary ascribed to the Delacorte’s Trump.)
In an interview, Eustis told me that his goal was intentionally political, that he saw in Caesar the earmarks of a kind of tyranny that contemporary audiences would recognize. “The fundamental question in ‘Julius Caesar’ is what do you do to protect a democracy when a demagogue is threatening the thing that you love,” he said. When such questions arise, this production vibrantly reaffirms, it’s always the right move to brush up your Shakespeare.
Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Oskar Eustis. Set, David Rockwell; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Jessica Paz; original music and sound, Bray Poor; fight direction, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet; production stage manager, Buzz Cohen. With Marjan Neshat, Isabel Arraiza, Eisa Davis, Mayaa Boteng, Edward James Hyland, Motell Foster, Tyler La Marr, Justin Walker White. About 2 hours. Through Sunday at Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York. Free tickets distributed on each performance day. Visit publictheater.org.