While directors for years have airlifted Shakespeare’s history plays out of their period context into the fascist era for renewed edge, it’s easy to imagine the post-terrorism climate of fear and hysteria becoming the new standard. Perhaps the least complex of the tragedies, “Julius Caesar” seems a somewhat predictable candidate to be so recontextualized, here set in a ravaged past-present-future state that evokes everything from corporate skullduggery to the brother-against-brother genocide of Rwanda. But if Daniel Sullivan’s bloody, testosterone-fueled production falls short of thrilling reinvention, it succeeds in rendering the fall of the Roman ruler and subsequent civil war a gripping, highly accessible drama for mainstream Broadway auds.
OK, so relatively few of the ticket buyers responsible for the production’s hefty advance are coughing up to see a radical, contempo reimagining of Shakespeare. If the marketing campaign built entirely around the face of Marcus Brutus and his interpreter recruited from Hollywood after a long stage absence are not indication enough, the squeals that greet Denzel Washington’s entrance leave no doubt as to the main attraction.
To Washington’s credit, his performance as “the noblest Roman of them all,” who became the key conspirator against Caesar, is very much in the service of the ensemble and not a scene-stealing star turn.
Aside from one or two brief showy moments in Brutus’ second-act clash with Cassius — the kind of breast-beating bluster that won Washington an Oscar in “Training Day,” and probably what many customers have come to see — the actor gives a reflective take on the ambivalent role. His Brutus is a good man of perceptive intelligence and contained authority, his actions dictated by causes larger than his own. “I am not gamesome,” he says. “I do lack some part of that quick spirit that is in Anthony.” In fact, Washington’s Brutus could hardly be more sober, despite the diamond stud glittering in his ear.
Sullivan and designer Ralph Funicello have made fine use of the Belasco’s boxy, intimate stage, creating a city of crumbling grandeur, the heavy marble buildings eaten away by time and conflict, strewn with junk, rubble and scaffolding. This is a political arena where corruption, decay and strife clearly have long been rampant. The sole signs of untarnished imperialistic might are the banners draped about, the largest of which bears the face of Caesar (William Sadler), an image that recalls both Che Guevara and Saddam Hussein.
Of course the ambiguousness of the eponymous leader is a fundamental aspect of Shakespeare’s play, and Sadler’s robust characterization paints a suitably textured picture. Despite refusing the crown three times before the adoring Roman crowd, Caesar’s arrogance and vanity are made fully evident by Sadler. This lends conviction to the success of bitterly resentful Cassius (Colm Feore) in raising alarm about Caesar’s dangerous ambition, assembling a band of murderous conspirators from among the leader’s trusted cronies, and above all, in recruiting the esteemed Brutus to legitimize their cause.
Sullivan is perhaps a little too literal presenting Caesar naked and vulnerable on the massage table on the fatal morning of the Ides of March. But his staging of the killing in a Senate refashioned as a boardroom and peopled by shifty gray-suited execs is visceral and exciting.
The death midway of the title character has always imposed an awkward structure on “Julius Caesar.” But Washington’s smooth command helps continue the momentum in the stirring oration that follows, when Brutus takes the stage to convince Caesar’s followers he has acted honorably. “This is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”
The real centerpiece of the drama, however, is the subsequent “Friends, Romans, countrymen” address by Mark Antony (Eamonn Walker), the rousing catalyst for the shift in power and the start of civil war. Walker’s big imposing frame quietly emanates strength and purpose in his glowering perf. The actor conveys calm sincerity while convincing Brutus and the conspirators he can be trusted not to go against them, releasing his grief in an anguished flood only when alone with Caesar’s body.
Facing the crowd in a state both emotional and composed enough to sway the fickle public, he ably spreads dissent by degree, emerging, as the character often does, as the most redeemable figure in the drama.
Sullivan has guided the cast toward a relaxed, easy delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue, the limber contemporary rhythms bringing added clarity. The only slight departure toward a more traditional declaiming style comes from Feore, who nonetheless makes the stylistic distinction work in defining the prickly Cassius as the drama’s self-serving chief agitator, a sinister figure all too rightly regarded with suspicion by Caesar.
The play’s women are given limited scope but Jessica Hecht as Portia and Tamara Tunie as Calpurnia provide suitably brittle portraits of the anxious, needy wives of two political heavyweights. Jack Willis is hilarious playing Casca as a snarky gossip, who hisses his account of Caesar’s success before the crowd with the supercilious vitriol of Truman Capote. The large ensemble is generally strong.
While the overall take in Sullivan’s production feels somewhat obvious and elementary, its shifts in tone doing little to define the play’s murky psychology, the staging is brisk, propulsive, tense and entertaining. There’s nothing timid or reverential here. Its contemporary embellishments run from costumer Jess Goldstein’s anonymous business apparel in the first half to guerilla camouflage duds in the second; from metal-detector checks at the Senate to security passes worn round the commoners’ necks.
Set pieces, such as the violent storm during which the conspirators elaborate their plot, are staged with portentous weight, enhanced by Mimi Jordan Sherin’s brooding lighting and Dan Moses Schreier’s ominous music and thundering sound design. The aud’s eardrums take a beating in the second act too, as bombs and gunfire tear the riven state even further. This may not be the most conclusive “Julius Caesar” ever mounted, but it certainly carries a bang.