Lopsided production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in Central Park

By Michael Kuchwara
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - It’s no contest in Central Park these cool summer evenings. In the battle between supporters of, and conspirators against, Julius Caesar, the bad guys just aren’t as interesting. In this lopsided Public Theater production of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy, the play springs to life only when the title character and his ardent admirers, specifically Mark Antony, are on stage.

Director Barry Edelstein has trouble keeping the drama moving forward as the play lurches back and forth between the intrigues to bury Caesar and the celebrations to praise him. 

A large bust of Caesar, looking remarkably like Illya Kuryakin of television’s "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," dominates one side of the outdoor playing area. That’s not so odd, since the great Caesar is played by the 1960s TV hero himself, David McCallum. 

McCallum handles the role well. Clear-spoken yet with more than a smidgen of insecurity, the actor convincingly conveys Caesar’s public side - remote, regal and invincible. Yet he also effectively captures the man’s debilitating physical ailments, illnesses Caesar hides from the adoring crowds. Quite a politician. 

No wonder Jeffrey Wright’s Mark Antony can galvanize the rabble against Caesar’s assassins. It helps, too, that Wright has a mesmerizing stage persona. His ease with the language makes even one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches - "Friends, Romans, countrymen ..." flow with a surprising naturalness. Yet Wright doesn’t neglect the theatricality of the moment either. He knows how to play to the crowd, both on stage and off. Picture a rock star crossed with a televangelist and you get an idea of his considerable presence. 

The machinations of the men determined to do away with Caesar are pale by comparison, although an oily Dennis Boutsikaris, who plays the ringleader Cassius, gets high marks for ingratiating deviousness.

The other conspirators are an uninspired bunch. Brutus, who should be the play’s most complex character, suffers from Jamey Sheridan’s curiously static portrait. Sheridan, a fine actor who has scored in the very American plays of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, seems at sea here.
Brutus, "an honorable man" to use Mark Antony’s description, agonizes over whether to join the band of men to kill Caesar. His indecision should tear the man apart. here, it seems a minor inconvenience. 

The other killers are equally bland except for Ritchie Coster’s overripe Casca - oddly spelled Caska in this production - a foppish performance more suitable for Restoration comedy.

Composer John Gromada has provided an ominous-sounding score that signals when things are going to get tense. Tense, in fact, may be the best adjective to describe the entire wildly divergent production, goings-on that obscure rather than illuminate "Julius Caesar."