Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination. Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions.
The Delacorte production, vividly staged by the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, bears the same message and, for good measure, comes with careful usage instructions. “Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods,” Mr. Eustis recently explained in a statement, “pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.”
Still, when the famous funeral scene arrives, and Marc Antony exposes not just Caesar’s sliced-up garment, as Shakespeare indicates, but also his bare, wound-ripped flesh, even theatergoers who loathe Mr. Trump may begin to wonder whether the production has a Kathy Griffin problem on its hands. Has it gone too far?
To answer that, you first have to consider where it started. Mr. Eustis has said he decided to schedule “Julius Caesar” as the first of this summer’s Delacorte productions on election night in November. It was already his favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies, and it did not take much of a leap to envision the title role as a Trump precursor. The character as written is vain, self-serving and demagogic, cynically manipulating the whiplash passions of his followers.
Nor would any textual emendation be required to make the point. The serendipity of English renders much of the original language strangely contemporary. Though Elizabethans would have understood Caesar to be referring to a mob, how can we not imagine a media briefing when he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” And when an underling informs Brutus of an important communiqué by saying “I found this posted,” why should we be surprised when he points to something on his smartphone?
Indeed, Mr. Eustis has added just three words to the text, which is otherwise reduced by about a quarter. The line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less” has been updated by the insertion of the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma. The audience roars.
The rest has been accomplished visually. David Rockwell’s set design combines timeless imperial imagery (giant gearlike constructions) with pointed American allusions. (A blowup of the preamble to the Constitution is prominently displayed.) Contemporary costuming by Paul Tazewell, including dark suits and trench coats, federal lapel pins, Anonymous masks and pussy hats, conjures today’s factional strife at a glance. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, wears a series of gorgeously cut outfits, appropriately in blush.
Neither as a citizen nor as a critic do I object to any of this. The first half of the play, culminating in that funeral scene, is great, nasty fun, even if, at the heart of Manhattan, it’s preaching to the choir. To the extent there is a problem with the Trumpification of “Julius Caesar,” both as politics and as dramaturgy, it arises in the second half, once Caesar, except for a brief recurrence as a ghost, disappears.
It is then that we are faced with the ways that Trump and Caesar never properly scanned, and an aftermath in which that confusion breeds more confusion. For one thing, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a war hero and, as smartly played by Gregg Henry, a deeply charismatic one. When offered the chance, three times, to become emperor, he chooses three times to remain a senator. This is more like George Washington than Mr. Trump.
So the assassination, though terrifically staged, is uncertainly motivated when a Trumpalike is its object. Whom are the conspirators really killing, and why? Brutus is the only one clearly thinking of his country first. By many accounts he is thus the play’s real protagonist, its tragic hero. Mr. Eustis’s production certainly endorses that reading.
But it is just as possible, and perhaps even more coherent, to see Caesar and his defenders, especially Marc Antony, as the heroes. Shakespeare, after all, was no anti-monarchist; that the Roman experiment in democracy ended with the elevation of Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius is not something he seems to weep over.
This puts the moral burden where I imagine Mr. Eustis wants it: on the audience. We are asked to consider how far citizens may go in removing a destructive leader, and we are warned about unforeseen consequences. Dressing Caesar as Trump gives that agenda its juice but leaves the production a bit desiccated and incoherent thereafter. To be fair, this is a problem built into the play, which like all of Shakespeare’s tragedies begins with astonishing rhetoric and ends as an abattoir.
The fault is not in the stars, as good a group as the Public has assembled in the park in years. I am not sure what Mr. Eustis may have intended by making most of the conspirators, except for Brutus, black, but in any case the colorblind and gender-blind casting is apt and excellent. Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony brings down the house with the funeral oration, spicing its pentameter cadence with the gumbo drawl of a southern senator. Corey Stoll as a reflective Brutus, John Douglas Thompson as an intemperate Cassius, and Teagle F. Bougere as a suave Casca are all ideal in the major conspirator roles; Tina Benko as Melania-slash-Calpurnia and Nikki M. James as Brutus’s noble wife, Portia, make comic and emotional hay respectively of their few but key scenes.
Even the amoebalike ensemble, which sometimes seems to swell to include the entire audience of 1,800 citizens, does unusually fine work: a crucial element in a play about the manipulation of crowds. Jessica Paz’s sound design and Bray Poor’s soundscapes add immeasurably to the feeling that the story is not unspooling in some dim past but in Central Park tonight.
In that sense, this “Julius Caesar” is a deeply democratic offering, befitting both the Public and the public — and the times. If in achieving that goal it flirts a little with the violent impulses it otherwise hopes to contain, and risks arousing pro-Trump backlash, that’s unfortunate but forgivable. Mr. Eustis seems to have taken to heart Cassius’s admonition to Brutus when Brutus is still on the fence about taking action. “Think of the world,” he begs. It’s a line that cuts two ways.
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