×

Julius Caesar

If Al Gore possessed a mere fraction of the oratorical charisma of the young actor Jeffrey Wright, he might easily have KO'd George W. in the battle of the big speeches. Delivering one of Shakespeare's most celebrated monologues, Mark Antony's eulogy for his murdered leader, Wright instantly ignites the Public Theater's otherwise tepid new production of "Julius Caesar."

With:
Julius Caesar - David McCallum Marcus Brutus - Jamey Sheridan Caius Cassius - Dennis Boutsikaris Casca/Titinius - Ritchie Coster Decius Brutus/ Messala - Peter Jay Fernandez Cinna/Lucilius - James Shanklin Metellus Cimber - Ezra Knight Trebonius/Strato - Curt Hostetter Caius Ligarius/ Volumnius - Larry Paulsen Mark Antony - Jeffrey Wright Octavius Caesar - Sean McNall Lepidus/Cicero - Clement Fowler Publius - Neal Lerner Popilius Lena - Jonathan Earl Peck Calphurnia - Judith Hawking Portia - Colette Kilroy Soothsayer - Ching Valdes-Aran Artemidorus - Nadia Bowers Clitus - Keldrik Crowder Dardanius - Richard Frankfather A Cobbler - Pablo T. Schreiber Lucius - Wayne Kasserman Servant to Antony - Robert K. Wu Cinna the Poet - Jason Howard

If Al Gore possessed a mere fraction of the oratorical charisma of the young actor Jeffrey Wright, he might easily have KO’d George W. in the battle of the big speeches. Delivering one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated monologues, Mark Antony’s eulogy for his murdered leader (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”), Wright instantly ignites the Public Theater’s otherwise tepid new production of “Julius Caesar,” the Bard’s hot-blooded examination of political skullduggery in ancient Rome.

Endowed with a rich, resonant baritone and the intelligence and wit to wield it as a powerfully seductive tool, Wright is brilliantly cast as the wily Antony. Julius Caesar, you’ll recall, makes an ignominiously early exit from the play to which he lends his name. He’s slain by a cranky corps of conspirators led by the noble Brutus (Jamey Sheridan) and the ignoble Cassius (Dennis Boutsikaris), who then generously grant Caesar’s loyal soldier Antony the right to address the public at JC’s funeral.

Bad move, boys — particularly when Antony is embodied by the suave, sexy and casually magnetic Wright, who turns Antony’s exhortation to the famously fickle Roman citizenry into a fiery tour de force. He delivers Shakespeare’s verse with the rousing rhythms of a Baptist preacher on a holy-rolling high (note particularly Antony’s use of that powerful rhetorical tool of repetition, ever popular in pulpits), or a jazz instrumentalist riffing ecstatically on a well-worn melody. It’s as if Orson Welles descended upon a poetry slam, and it’s thrilling. The lights on the stage seem to blaze brighter, the ambient noise in the outdoor amphitheater subsides into a rapt hush, and you’d swear Wright didn’t need that clumsy mechanical contraption to levitate above the crowd; he might be soaring aloft on the power of his own rhetorical gifts.

Unfortunately, after handily rousing the Romans to a homicidal frenzy of vengeance, and the audience to a fervent burst of applause, Wright must come back to earth. So, accordingly, does Barry Edelstein’s lackluster production, which quickly returns to the shambling pace that preceded Antony’s electrifying arrival.

Although it has a juicy, blood-spattered plotline and more than its share of familiar quotations (among them “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves …” and of course “Et tu, Brute?”), “Julius Caesar” is not among Shakespeare’s most esteemed plays. Its focus is divided among the psychologies of several key characters, and Shakespeare’s attitude toward its bloody events remains mysterious. But precisely because it seems to lack a powerful central vision, the play offers wide scope for interpretation. Is Caesar truly a dangerous tyrant, or merely a noble leader in ailing, self-obsessed decline? Is Brutus the “noble Roman” dedicated to republican ideals or a delusional figure who projects his own ambition onto his leader? Shakespeare’s contempt for the easily aroused passions of the mob is clear enough, but is Antony tainted by his eager manipulation of these base impulses?

For the most part, Edelstein and his actors don’t supply very compelling answers to any such questions. Most crucially lacking in this production is a sense of gravity, a feeling that the destinies of great men and a turning point in the history of a great civilization are being thoughtfully and urgently examined.

With vaguely contemporary trappings — graffiti smeared on a wall here, black jackboots there, latter-day ironical inflections emphasized throughout — the idea seems to be to cut play and players down to our own size. Aside from Wright’s mesmerizing Antony — and he, in any case, exerts a powerfully contemporary allure rather than an ageless one — none of the performances have the dramatic stature these famous historical figures warrant. They’re more like a bunch of squabbling schoolboys fighting over a piece of turf, puny figures whose conflicts hardly seem to justify the thunderous soundscape supplied by Ken Travis and the ominous Middle Eastern music of John Gromada. (They are, however, all too at home in Angela Wendt’s unattractive mishmash of classical and contemporary martial gear.)

Narelle Sissons’ blood-soaked stage suggests that Edelstein takes the view that Shakespeare’s Caesar was truly an evil force, but David McCallum plays the great warrior as a petulant child who stomps about peevishly and brags with preening glee about his powers. His assassination, laboriously staged though it is, thus lacks an element of horror — an irritating fly has merely been swatted. (McCallum’s diminishing interpretation is particularly unfortunate, because he does have a natural flair for communicating the verse.)

Boutsikaris’ Cassius is not a figure of disturbing, powerful malevolence but a small-minded, whiny villain who might make a viable second career in standup comedy (he gets a lot of laughs mimicking Caesar’s cowardice). On that circuit he might be found competing for guffaws with the mincingly effeminate Casca of Ritchie Coster.

But most detrimental to the production is the bland Brutus of Sheridan. There is nothing flagrantly misguided about Sheridan’s performance (which is more than can be said for the shrewish, unsympathetic performance of Colette Kilroy as his wife Portia); it simply doesn’t begin to tap the possibilities of this role, a self-divided, ghost-haunted figure who prefigures later, greater tragic figures such as Hamlet and Macbeth. The most emotionally exposed and complex figure in the play is rendered opaquely here.

With a blazing page of historical conflict thus largely reduced here to a series of peevish tiffs, there are few compelling historical lessons to be found in this “Julius Caesar.” Nonetheless, Wright’s memorable turn does make a persuasive case that he who gives the most consciously manipulative, emotionally seductive speeches is likely to win the heart of the faceless mob. Al Gore might want to take note.

Julius Caesar

Delacorte Theater; 1,900 seats; free admission

Production: A Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of the play by William Shakespeare in two acts. Directed by Barry Edelstein.

Creative: Sets, Narelle Sissons. Costumes, Angela Wendt; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Ken Travis; music, John Gromada; fight director, J. Steven White; dramaturg, John Dias; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Producer, George C. Wolfe; artistic producer, Rosemarie Tichler. Opened Aug. 20, 2000. Reviewed Aug. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast: Julius Caesar - David McCallum Marcus Brutus - Jamey Sheridan Caius Cassius - Dennis Boutsikaris Casca/Titinius - Ritchie Coster Decius Brutus/ Messala - Peter Jay Fernandez Cinna/Lucilius - James Shanklin Metellus Cimber - Ezra Knight Trebonius/Strato - Curt Hostetter Caius Ligarius/ Volumnius - Larry Paulsen Mark Antony - Jeffrey Wright Octavius Caesar - Sean McNall Lepidus/Cicero - Clement Fowler Publius - Neal Lerner Popilius Lena - Jonathan Earl Peck Calphurnia - Judith Hawking Portia - Colette Kilroy Soothsayer - Ching Valdes-Aran Artemidorus - Nadia Bowers Clitus - Keldrik Crowder Dardanius - Richard Frankfather A Cobbler - Pablo T. Schreiber Lucius - Wayne Kasserman Servant to Antony - Robert K. Wu Cinna the Poet - Jason Howard

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content