by JK Clarke
It can be argued that William Shakespeare’s much loved Roman Republic play Julius Caesar is actually two plays in one: the first half being a tragedy very much in the spirit of Macbeth or Hamlet; the second being more similar to the History Plays, like Henry V or Richard III. The latest production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, playing through April 28 at Theatre for a New Audience’s (TFANA) Polonsky Shakespeare Center (after a successful 2017 run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), illustrates this division more keenly than most.
Doing a Julius Caesar production set in contemporary times is risky (unless done for budgetary reasons) and inevitably results in audiences drawing comparisons to contemporary political figures. The Public Theater made no bones about their controversial summer of 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production in which Caesar was clearly modeled on Donald Trump (aside from inviting a firestorm of controversy from Trump supporters, it also removed some of the complexity and nuance of the text, as Trump lacks all of Caesar’s qualities and qualifications as a leader). The play is beautifully written and complex enough that it has the right to stand without such comparisons. Where this OSF/TFANA production succeeds in its modern setting is that there are no identifiable figures from the tabloids or the halls of government. Nonetheless, it still grapples with communicating the monumental, earth-shaking seriousness of the play in its period by having central characters run around in hoodies (costumes – Raquel Barreto) or dressed like they’ve just come from Burning Man and masked in a way that makes their speech practically unintelligible.
It seems like every production of Julius Caesar is marked by a magnificent performance that is out of proportion with the other actors. Never have I seen a Julius Caesar with powerhouse performances by all of the four principals. In this case the standout performance is Brandon J. Dirden’s Brutus. Though soft spoken, his fear of Caesar’s impending despotism is palpable, as his sense of duty to both the history and legacy of Rome. Additionally, his scenes with his wife Portia (a convincing and relatable Merritt Janson) are genuine and heart wrenching; though his grief in the second half at her horrifying demise did not match his passion for her in the first half. Which seemed to be a pattern across the whole of the play.
This is a play known for some of the greatest speeches not only in Shakespeare, but in the English language itself. As the conspirators grapple with the notion of assassinating Caesar lest he be crowned king, destroying Rome’s democracy (which happened anyway, leaving western civilization without one until 1776), their arguments are serious, persuasive and emotional. Even Cassius (Matthew Ament), who comes across as a bit of an over-enthusiastic rebel, understands the gravity of the moment: “Men at some time are masters of their fates;/ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves that we are underlings.”
But it is Mark Antony who should come across as the great, passionate orator who lights a fire under the plebeians and begins a civil war. His “Honorable Man” speech, which starts with the famous, “Friends Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” and which he uses to satirically undercut Brutus and the conspirators is a rhetorical style borrowed even today by politicians (Congressman Adam Schiff’s “You Might Think That’s Okay” speech to the House Intelligence Committee last week employed that very rhetorical technique). Which is why it’s disappointing that Jordan Barbour’s Mark Antony falls quite a bit short of potential. While Barbour is a terrific actor who delivers his lines eloquently, his Mark Antony is more akin to the cool guy in the neighborhood who coaches Little League than the uber mensch who won Rome and eventually convinced Cleopatra (as told in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) to give up a nation and her life.
The softness of these major characters runs through the cast, which suggests a pathway preferred by Director Shana Cooper. But when the ferocious soldier and conquering hero and man-who-would-be-king Julius Caesar (Rocco Sisto) comes across more like the benevolent, accidental president Dave played by Kevin Kline in the 1993 movie of the same name, much of the story’s strength and meaning evaporates.
The same goes for Octavius Caesar who joins ranks (temporarily) with Mark Antony in order to beat down the conspirators. Played almost too calmly by Benjamin Bonenfant, he’s more of a hipster Che Guevara wanna be, complete with man-bun and beret. That this character could successfully lead a revolt against an army of experienced soldiers is beyond credible. And it certainly doesn’t help that the battle scenes were choreographed (Erika Chong Shuch) into a pantomime with knives (rather than swords) that looked like a cross between Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and a Maori haka, both literally and figuratively taking the fight out of the play’s second half.
All of these shortcomings come together on a set (Sibyl Wickersheimer) that is not only unimpressive (and refuses to take advantage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, one of the most versatile and malleable theater spaces in the city), but illogical. Large sheets of white laminate pasteboard that have been cracked or damaged in some forms and other pieces stacked to make bridges from the seats to the stage. Was it meant to be used to resemble cracked marble? If so, lighting to augment this effect would have helped. Or better still, remarkable things are being done with paint these days. But, more importantly, it doesn’t reflect the Rome of the story, the opulent capital that’s worth saving. Had the set deconstructed as the Republic began to fall throughout the civil war (pieces do fall apart, but the transition is negligible) , that may have made sense. But for it to start out in disrepair is contextually illogical.
The elements simply don’t come together to create the devastating political drama that is Julius Caesar on the page. It may be a good production for absorbing Shakespeare’s rich dialog, but certainly not the pageantry and visual meaning of this powerful play.
Julius Caesar. Through April 28 at Theatre For a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Downtown Brooklyn). Two hours, 40 minutes – one intermission. www.tfana.org
Photos: Gerry Goodstein & Henry Grossman (as indicated)