I wish I could have seen The Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar twice, once without all the external political drama and one with it. As such, the performance I attended featured an extra ‘sideshow’ — performers, both outside the theater shouting protest slogans and others inside on stage interrupting Shakespeare's 400-year-old play.
Julius Caesar is a tale of politics and ambition. Caesar, a brave, beloved general, having brought victory and spoils to his people, becomes enamored of his own success and power. Although he rejects the crown three times when the people offer it to him, some of his closest friends and counselors, namely Cassius and Brutus, fear that power has gone to his head and he will ultimately accept it. A group of senators plot to assassinate Caesar to stop him. The play has a gender-blind cast and has Marc Anthony played by the wonderful Elizabeth Marvel with a southern drawl. (Are we supposed to envision Jeff Sessions?)
This interpretation makes clear references to Donald Trump as Caesar (played by Gregg Henry) but from the onset, the mostly liberal-leaning NY audience sees the depiction as a reason to mock and jeer the character. He’s pompous, emerges naked from a golden bathtub and has an attractive wife with an accent who won’t take his hand. The audience laughs through much of his scenes. Protesters carry signs to resist and Cassius even wears a pink pussycat hat. There’s little subtlety here. However, lost in the interpretation is the sense that Caesar was brave, noble and heroic. We don’t see the qualities that attract brave men like Anthony and Brutus (Corey Stoll) to follow and respect him.
Stoll, a fine actor, is unable to gain the audience’s sympathies. He’s supposed to be conflicted and pained by the decision he makes to join in the assassination plot. Anthony mocks him later in the famous speech rallying the people, when she repeatedly calls Brutus an honorable man, yet Brutus truly is an honorable man. Stoll is just too mellow as if he’s going through the motions. Much more convincing is the wonderful John Douglas Thompson as Cassius, his fellow- conspirator. I would have loved to see the two men reverse roles, but then we might have seen a racial discussion added to the mix.
Present-day politics overshadow the true messages of the play. When a woman jumped up on stage to protest the play after the bloody assassination, security was called and everything felt so matter-of-fact that it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t part of the play. Yet later when 50 or so actors around the theater become vocal about avenging Caesar’s death, the atmosphere felt more threatening for those of us in the audience.
Shakespeare’s messages are still important today and worth seeing. Power corrupts but violence is not the way to resolve the problems. I’m not sure that those messages were clear in this interpretation. The annual Free Shakespeare in The Park has become a trademark of NY and a highlight of the summer for me. This season it has come to be something more. The next production is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will it be a comedy or will it emphasize an interpretation of women’s liberation? We’ll find out July 11.