In view of the controversy that hit the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar,” the first thing that need be said is that the folks at the Public have every right to present a work in any way chosen. That is called artistic freedom, and in no way should the organization have to self-censor plays because of attacks.
As for evaluating the interpretation of the play by director Oskar Eustis, the result is a dynamic staging that ignites excitement and passion. Like other directors of various classics, Eustis was obviously searching for a way to make this staging unique. What of the particular choices?
Shakespeare’s powerful, insightful “Julius Caesar” has through the centuries impressed those who made a connection between the issues involved to make comparisons in their own eras and governmental situations. There have been all sorts of interpretations. When one views the play today, one doesn’t need gimmicks to make the play clear as to how it might apply in these times. If one trusts audience intelligence, a comparison will be evident.
Making Caesar look like President Trump gets a laugh, as does the casting of Caesar’s wife to resemble the First Lady. Their bathtub scene together is very funny. As for the assassination, it is extremely bloody and the egotistical Trump-alike portrayal (by Gregg Henry) suggests the horror of contemporary violence. Those upset by the idea should note that the chaotic slaughter that is an outgrowth of the assassination delivers a key message of the play— violence breeds more violence and is not a solution to political problems.
Was modernizing the classic in this way necessary to get what the play is saying with respect to today’s conflicts? Do we really need the Trump gambit? Do we need an American flag in the mix? Do we need a playful line inserted to solidify the reference to Trump? Yes, it makes for fun, especially in Democratic New York City, but is it superfluous?
Much more dramatically valid is the positioning of supporting players throughout the audience to shout at the competing powers in the play. That creates extra excitement and involvement. (On the night I attended two real protestors had to be ushered out while the action on stage stopped.)
There is also the decision to have Marc Antony played by a woman, with Elizabeth Marvel doing a good job. But I am not keen in the way it is done. It would make more sense if casting a woman in the role to have her perform dressed as the male character Shakespeare wrote. Here Marvel, with her flowing hair, is portraying a woman who would have been an unlikely leader in the mix at the time. After all, it is MARC Antony.
The rest of the cast is also excellent--for example, Corey Stoll as Brutus, John Douglas Thompson as Cassius and Nikkim James as Portia.
Physically the overall production effect is exemplary, with a huge, striking scenic design by David Rockwell fitting the dynamics of the play. The total presentation, with a vast company, makes for an entertaining and often moving evening in the park and allows us a fresh look at the play and its meaning despite the shortsightedness of the protests. At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park entrance at 81st Street. Reviewed June 17, 2017.