Newark Star Ledger, August 21, 2000

This 'Caesar' deserves to be buried, not praised

By Michael Sommers



Where: Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York

When: Through Sept. 3. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

How much: Free. Two tickets per person available on performance days beginning at 1 p.m. at the Delacorte.

NEW YORK -- The most ignoble murderer of them all in "Julius Caesar" is director Barry Edelstein, who kills off Shakespeare's great 400-year-old political drama with his loud, rambling outdoors staging in Central Park. One of the most popular political dramas ever written has been aimlessly pumped up into a spasmodic shouting match. The story remains a classic: At his summit, Caesar is assassinated by jealous or misguided senators, who scramble to grab control of the resulting chaos. Ambitious Cassius and idealistic Brutus lose after crafty Mark Antony manipulates the mob in his famous Forum speech over Caesar's body. 

Now, there's more to the play than that, but it's generally lost in Edelstein's unfocused production. Extremes in volume, either screaming or murmuring, seem to be the only way that Edelstein's main actors can express their roles. Surely artists like Jeffrey Wright ("Basquiat" star and a Tony-winner as the smart-mouthed nurse in "Angels in America") and Dennis Boutsikaris ("Sight Unseen") are  capable of greater subtlety than their crude performances here. At first Wright's Mark Antony cruises along in a torso-revealing toga, exploding his woozy manner in a bellowing rendition of the funeral oration before finally subsiding into a sullen snarl for the remainder. In a not especially complex but at least consistent depiction of Cassius, Boutsikaris simply plays him as a greasy operator. Blank-faced Jamey Sheridan's initially stolid Brutus turns harried but becomes hardly more interesting as luck goes against him. Looking like Napoleon, David McCallum plays Caesar with an anxious yet robotic sense of detachment. As lesser conspirators Casca and Trebonius, Ritchie Coster and Curt Hostetter provide a few gleams of humor. But there's no sense of cohesiveness to these essentially hollow performances except in their tendency towards shouting at critical moments. 

A showy though sometimes effective score for drums by John Gromada adds to the general decibel level, which is painfully punctuated by designer Ken Travis with long metallic screeches. Worst of all, Shakespeare's brilliantly written crowd scenes, which directors have staged with such wonders over the centuries, are vocally rendered in monotonous near-unison, the ensemble usually facing away from viewers. Clad in monochromatic hues, they are presented as masses rather than as Roman individuals. Apparently there's a quasi-Fascist tilt to Edelstein's not-so-original angle, although Angela Wendt's costumes are all over the map. Narelle Sisson's set involves slabs of masonry and monolithic statue hunks. An enormous gilt head of Caesar hangs from a crane until his murder, when it's deposited on the sidelines. Upstage, a giant-sized hand reposes, palm up to the sky, beseeching -- what? Pity from the audience? Help from George C. Wolfe to rescue this badly directed show? Edelstein, a thoughtful young guy who runs Classic Stage Company, can't get a fresh handle on the play either in concept or execution, and his production dully rehashes old approaches. He can't even move the crowds around with any expertise, let alone his principal players. The only one who survives this massacre is Shakespeare, whose drama sometimes manages to be heard amid all the noise and confusion.