Theater

The Public Theater Delivers A Controversial Beltway “Julius Caesar”

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In 1991, Donald Trump bought a trademark on the words Central Park and began merchandising products (lamps, furniture, glassware) under the name of that dear green space. Today he is the largest private, for-profit holder of Central Park–branded goods. It seems only fair that Trump’s most personal brand — the squinty pout, the cubist combover, the crotch-length tie — should be infringed so that a Central Park audience may laugh at him for free. Director Oskar Eustis’s Julius Caesar goes there and goes big: an op-ed caricature scrawled over Shakespeare’s durable Roman tragedy and shoved in the nation’s face. Et tu, Comé?

Although Gregg Henry does a loose impression of the Don, our lanky ex–FBI chief escapes mockery at the Delacorte; anyway, which role would he fill? Part of the fun is noting the achievement gap between historical figures and today’s headline fodder. Gaius Julius Caesar was a military legend who conquered half of Europe and Egypt, and a master prose stylist. Trump once tried to sell steaks. But both exploit pomp and rhetoric and are violently deplored by their enemies. No one mistook comedian Kathy Griffin’s severed-head stunt as policy debate, but it inflamed passions on both sides. Partly, the outcry speaks to the power mimetic representation has over our collective lizard brain; part of it is a rational desire to, as Brutus puts it, “kill him in the shell” — crush the baby tyrant before he does any more harm. (Of course, the real bloodletting was colored green: Over the weekend, Delta Air Lines, claiming a safe, nonexistent moral high ground, yanked its financial support of the Public over childish concerns about “good taste”; Bank of America shortly followed suit, denouncing this Julius Caesar, though it ultimately stopped short of terminating its relationship with the Public’s other projects.)

This slightly trimmed version runs two hours without intermission and moves along smartly on a David Rockwell set that juxtaposes vaulting neoclassical marble with construction-site barricades covered in activist posters and graffiti: America as a locus of building up and tearing down. This is a people-power Julius Caesar: Eustis has wrangled 47 extras to play Roman citizens rioting and chanting resistance slogans (“This is what democracy looks like!”) between scenes. The first half emphasizes the Comedy Central conceit: Caesar lolls in a gold-plated bathtub, puffing on a cigar, standing defiantly naked during the entrance of Brutus (Corey Stoll), Cassius (John Douglas Thompson), and the other conspirators. The murder in the capitol is thrilling in its choreography, and quite bloody; the subsequent orations play messy, almost impromptu, with Elizabeth Marvel’s Southern-demagogue Marc Antony backslapping and bribing the crowd into anti-republican fury.

Eustis doesn’t sand down the subtleties and ironies of the text to score cheap points. He follows Shakespeare’s hurtling trajectory from grand public spectacle to intimate scenes of corrupted friendships and private despair. For those who waited in line all day and would prefer to ignore the news in favor of art, no worries: The play is there, acted by a strong ensemble. Stoll renders Brutus faithfully as an unshowy, principled bureaucrat, and Thompson has crafted the most noble and righteous Cassius I’ve seen. Sure, Cheeto Caesar is a gimmick born of anger and disgust, but it’s a gimmick with teeth — and one we need in order to probe the ever-widening fault lines between showmanship and ethical statecraft.

Julius Caesar

The Delacorte Theater in Central Park

212-967-7555

publictheater.org

Through June 18