WHAT “Julius Caesar”
WHERE Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West
INFO Free; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Trump caricature hijacks sensationalist Shakespeare staging.
“Julius Caesar” is the kind of play that can withstand radically different approaches. In the past few years, for instance, New Yorkers have seen a thrilling production set in a women’s prison and another that drew insightful parallels with the death of Malcolm X.
Oskar Eustis’ modern-dress staging at Shakespeare in the Park draws parallels, too — in broad strokes with thick Sharpies and neon-colored highlighters.
Here, the titular Roman leader (Gregg Henry) is a blowhard with corn-yellow hair and a glamorous wife (Tina Benko) who speaks in a vaguely eastern European accent. A throwaway line refers to Caesar getting away with stabbing someone on Fifth Avenue.
It’s all very obvious, and has a less-than-coherent relationship with the play.
The enduring power of “Julius Caesar” is that it makes you consider what makes a hero and what makes a villain: Who serves the Republic best? When Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) decide assassination is the only way to stop Caesar’s potential abuse of power, is the end justifying the means?
Turning Caesar, an efficient leader, into a comic caricature makes little sense. It may be fun to watch but it also undermines the show’s powerful ambiguity. Another consequence is that many in the mostly liberal Shakespeare in the Park audience will unequivocally side with Brutus and Cassius — at one point the latter even turns up in a pink hat. Never mind that they could also be considered power-hungry backstabbers (literally).
Busy and loud, the show moves at a fast clip — it’s over and out in under two hours — and Eustis throws a lot at us: nonstop action, a grandiose set by David Rockwell, dozens of extras planted in the audience and jumping into action during the battle of Philippi (here a brawl between anti-Caesar freedom fighters and pro-Caesar forces dressed as cops in tactical gear). Some members of the cast also stand out, though none more than the charismatic Elizabeth Marvel (“Homeland,” “House of Cards”) as Marc Antony. A genuine stage animal, Marvel skillfully turns Marc Antony from Caesar’s grinning enabler to an enraged — and eloquent — defender of his slain boss. Adept at manipulating crowds, this Marc Antony emerges as the real leader of the show’s universe. And possibly the real danger.