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.