New York Times 8/21/00

'Julius Caesar': The Politics of the Toga Era, Big, Bold and Often Bloody


With a busy percussionist pounding out portents, thunderclaps and sounds of war; a massive set of defaced, slightly skewed cement walls and an enormous disembodied hand to suggest a city shaken by cataclysm; a cast that plays the entire evening in a state of high dudgeon; and the whole production watched over by a mammoth, gold-painted bust of David McCallum (who plays the title role) dangling from a crane, the New York Shakespeare Festival's "Julius Caesar" has the garish bravado of a political convention.

O.K., that's a coyly chosen comparison, but the play is, after all, a timely choice for the festival this summer. And though the fire-and-brimstone production that opened last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is apt enough for Shakespeare's virulent treatise on the combustible chemistry of power and eloquence, this "Caesar" leaves you feeling shouted at and implored but not terribly shaken.

Directed by Barry Edelstein, it employs the briskly orchestrated, applause-moment-to-applause-moment strategy that makes political theater moving only to those already on the bandwagon. The murder of Caesar is handled with apt horror; it takes a long time for him to bleed and fall, and when he does he collapses on top of Brutus. But when Cinna the Poet is killed by the Marc Antony-roused mob merely for having the same name as a conspirator against Caesar, Mr. Edelstein strings him up by his ankles and hangs him from the very spot that Caesar's golden bust had occupied.

This is the moment that brings the lights down for intermission, and it is meant to provide a thrumming emotional zing. But it's heavy-handed and too much; the audience is already gasping from the bloodletting. And when the unnecessary, ominous-sounding musical cue is laid on, it has a similar effect to the convention-hall band striking up "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."

Mr. Edelstein strives for a timeless, borderless embrace, sometimes evocative-ly. His first-century Rome gives Brutus (Jamey Sheridan), still waffling over his decision to kill Caesar, the use of a telescope, a clever echo of Cassius's cagy nudge: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves."

The soothsayer (Ching Valdes-Aran), who begins the show portentously with a witchy dance and a shriek -- "Caaaeeeeesaaar!" -- is dressed and made up in vaguely Oriental fashion. The plebeians wear long blue robes and knitted skullcaps suggestive of Muslim garb (the costumes are by Angela Wendt) and at one point perform a celebratory dance, tapping out fierce African rhythms with sticks. The aspirants to power are clothed more formally, with military or affluent suggestion but without ethnic influence. The point is clear, if not exactly revelatory: the hold by a concentrated privileged few over a marginalized, variegated many is universal.

The most disappointing aspect of this "Caesar" is its underscoring of the obvious at the expense of the subtle. This is perhaps Shakespeare's most morally ambiguous play; it ends with one of his most ironic lines, the callow Octavius, Caesar's heir, declaring the end of the civil war that leaves Rome in tatters a "happy day." It's all the result of Caesar's declining prowess as a leader and Brutus's foolish susceptibility to the influence of Cassius (Dennis Boutsikaris), who is a coward, and the opportunism of power-hungry Marc Antony (Jeffrey Wright), dreadful foibles that seriously compromise their otherwise heroic stature. The men understand this, and their inner battles are what give the play its human -- as opposed to political -- profundity.

For the most part, however, the performances here follow the tone of the production as a whole, emphasizing each man's overt qualities rather than his struggles to cope with self-doubt. As a result the psychological battles are overly transparent. Mr. McCallum's Caesar seems overcome by his physical infirmity, with almost no remnant of his potency; as Cassius, Mr. Boutsikaris initially has the well-greased verbal facility of the confident class sneak, and he does have a lean and hungry look, but he's always jittery -- he does a lot of finger-pointing -- and when the time comes, he is an awfully cowardly coward, the struggle for dignity washed away in sheer panic.

As Brutus, Mr. Sheridan has the tense, macho mien of a Tom Landry-like football coach, someone who relishes the burden of setting a martyr's example for underlings. He seems to relish being put upon, even at home. (Portia, his wife, is played by Colette Kilroy as embittered by her husband's preoccupied frame of mind, and she uses the wounding of her thigh as a shrewish manipulation of his attention.) But Mr. Sheridan is a stiff performer, passing from reaction to reaction with a visible yank. His funeral speech feels practiced -- think Al Gore -- inadvertently masking the complications in Brutus's heart, making Antony's countervailing oration a finger snap.

Not that Mr. Wright delivers it that way. He milks it, looming above the mob like a demagogue and then stalking among the crowd, flourishing Caesar's will and unmercifully teasing the assemblage with its contents, voice rising to a crazed bellow.

In films and onstage Mr. Wright has been proving himself a performer of the can't-take-your-eyes-off-him ilk, and he is far and away the most commanding presence here. He has the grace and carriage of a casual athlete; he's the kind of actor who doesn't need to stay busy onstage. Even standing still, with hips and shoulders cocked in natural arrogance, he has a star's bearing, and he lends Antony a full measure of his charisma.

This is particularly apparent in his quieter moments. Scolding Octavius, dismissing Lepidus as no more serviceable a soldier than his horse, acknowledging an order from Caesar, greeting the conspirators with the grave affection that masks a poisonous vitriol, he conveys a casual potency.

And that may be why his performance, in the end, feels overplayed. In Mr. Wright's hands, Antony's joy in power becomes so overwhelming that his conscience is never in evidence. It is Marc Antony, after all, who delivers the impromptu eulogy for Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all," and he has to mean it. It feels cold and expeditious here, a performance in itself, the kind of falsely modest apportioning of credit that is worthy only of a candidate.


By William Shakespeare; directed by Barry Edelstein; sets by Narelle Sissons; costumes by Angela Wendt; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Ken Travis; original music by John Gromada; fight director, J. Steven White; production dramaturg, John Dias; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson; general manager, Michael Hurst; associate producer, Wiley Hausam; artistic associate, Brian Kulick; associate producer, Bonnie Metzgar. Presented by the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival; George C. Wolfe, producer; Rosemarie Tichler, artistic producer; Mark Litvin, managing director. At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, entrances at 81st Street at Central Park West and 79th Street at Fifth Avenue.

WITH: David McCallum (Julius Caesar), Jamey Sheridan (Marcus Brutus), Dennis Boutsikaris (Caius Cassius), Ritchie Coster (Caska), Peter Jay Fernandez (Decius Brutus), Jeffrey Wright (Marc Anthony), Judith Hawking (Calphurnia); Colette Kilroy (Portia) and Ching Valdes-Aran (Soothsayer).