By William Shakespeare; Directed by Shana Cooper
Produced by Theatre for A New Audience
Off Broadway, Classic
Runs through 4.28.19
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place
by Dan Rubins on 3.28.19
The Citizens in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Photo by Henry Grossman.
BOTTOM LINE: This Julius Caesar is a dystopian head scratcher, but the fault is not in its stars.
It’s not every day that Shakespeare productions trend on Twitter, but that was the case in June 2017 when Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar led to far-right protesters storming the stage and corporate sponsors pulling their funding for the Public Theater. That was all due, of course, to the rather literal connections drawn onstage between a tyrannical would-be king trampling on democracy and, well, Julius Caesar: the staging of a Trump look-a-like’s assassination didn’t sit so well with some audience members across the political spectrum.
There will be no such controversy accompanying the latest Julius Caesar in New York, currently playing at Theatre for A New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Thankfully, there’s nothing Trumpy to see here, besides the general tale of a power-hungry, populist leader bewitching the masses with promises of great wealth. If no firestorm, some sparks, at least, would be nice: this odd and oddly tepid Julius Caesar, directed by Shana Cooper in a revival of an earlier production from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is more likely to elicit shrugs than shouts.
Whether or not Julius Caesar reads as a play that’s explicitly about the audience’s particular political moment, Shakespeare poses a panoply of political questions (which can feel more or less theoretical depending on the year and the production): Might assassination be justified if a leader threatens the people’s freedom? Can any leader set aside ambition and act only for the greater good? Should the people, so easily swayed, be trusted with a democracy in the first place? These are big issues, and Shakespeare helps focus the audience by providing an über-specific story and setting—the dawn of the Roman Empire—through which those questions emerge.
Specific re-settings of Julius Caesar have worked before (like Ivo Van Hove’s modern bureaucratic landscape in Roman Tragedies), but Cooper’s kinda-sorta dystopian revisioning seems too conceptually vague to anchor the play’s meatiness. Caesar’s fans run on and off the stage from the audience, usually shirtless, wearing creepy silver masks and Rapunzel-esque wigs. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s peeling set consists of cracked plaster facades which crumble and collapse, presumably to represent the fall of the republic. Most of Raquel Barreto's costumes feel distinctly modern (Brutus wears a hoodie in one scene, and Octavius, confusing matters further, sports a green beret), but the props haven’t caught up with the outfits and the soldiers only wield primitive daggers: perhaps this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all technology has been lost?
These are not the questions audiences should be wrestling with during a performance of Julius Caesar, and the lack of clarity about setting and story only muddies the relationships between characters. (It also feels like those eerie masks are there to facilitate doubling so actors playing senators can also play citizens, rather than to make any particular point about mobs or anonymity.)
The show features some stand-out performances: the transformation of Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour) from fawning acolyte to steely orator convinces, and Julian Remulla sings hypnotically in the small role of Brutus’ servant Lucius. Both Brandon J. Dirden as Brutus and Matthew Amendt as Cassius put the text across clearly and thoughtfully—most of the cast does, for that matter—but there’s not really a persuasive sense of difference between the two leading conspirators, or among any of the conspirators, really; it shouldn’t come as such a big surprise when Antony attests in the final scene that Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all,” was the only conspirator to stab Caesar (Rocco Sisto) from a place of genuine care for the people and the Republic.
But what’s most confounding about Cooper’s wacky vision of Rome is how predictable it is. In a world aesthetically unmoored from the columns and temples of ancient patriarchy, why so few women? Merritt Janson and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart offer impassioned but familiar takes on stoic wives Portia and Caliphurnia. All the politicians and warriors remain men, with the exception of the senator Cicero (Emily Dorsch), who here whimpers in the corner while the menfolk carry out their slaughtering. Perhaps it’s meant as a commentary on the mindless mob mentalities of male politicians, but it feels more like a missed opportunity for something closer to gender parity in a play that can easily support it (see Roman Tragedies' female Cassius and Octavius, or Elizabeth Marvel as Mark Antony in that infamous Central Park production).
Cooper’s staging (which includes some initially effective solo kickboxing/step routine-as-warfare choreography that shows up too many times) has one really riveting moment. It comes right before intermission when, in a brief cameo, a random poet named Cinna (Galen Molk) gets mistaken for Cinna the conspirator by a mob of bloodthirsty plebeians; even when they realize their error, the citizens kill the innocent guy anyway. Cooper constructs a shocking tableau of violence here, one that’s searingly theatrical: shadow play, sound design, and movement coalesce in a 30-second torture scene in which no one actually touches the victim. Only in that brief moment does Cooper’s vision of a decaying Rome in chaos burn hot enough to scorch.
(The Tragedy of Julius Caesar plays at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place in Brooklyn, through April 28, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 40 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays (4/3 and 4/24 only) at 7:30; Thursdays (4/25 only) at 7:30; Fridays at 7:30; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $90-$115 ($20 for students and/or under 30) and are available at tfana.org or by calling 866-811-4111.)
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is by William Shakespeare. Directed by Shana Cooper. Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch. Set Design by Sibyl Wickersheimer. Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound Design by Paul James Prendergast. Costume Design by Raquel Barreto. Stage Manager is Shane Schnetzler.
The cast is Matthew Amendt, Jordan Barbour, Mark Bedard, Benjamin Bonenfant, Liam Craig, Ted Deasy, Brandon J. Dirden, Emily Dorsch, Michelle Hurst, Merritt Janson, Armando McClain, Galen Molk, Barret O'Brien, Julian Remulla, Juliana Sass, Rocco Sisto, Stephen Miller Spencer, and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart.