Review: In ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ the Political Thrill Is Gone

A Shakespeare play is sort of a Hallmark card. There is one for each event. When you might have an viewers embroiled in issues of governance — and since nobody has thought to launch the Mueller report in iambic pentameter — may as effectively pluck “Julius Caesar” off the shelf.

A political nail-gnawer a couple of self-absorbed populist and the males who conspire to question him one knife wound at a time, “Julius Caesar” is virtually bespoke for 2019 America. Surely somebody has already fantasy-cast it with Democratic hopefuls. Elizabeth Warren as Metellus Cimber? Discuss. But Shana Cooper’s revival at Theater for a New Audience — busy and butch — is so deep in dialog with itself and its dance battles that it almost forgets to talk to us right now.

Ms. Cooper’s manufacturing originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, simply earlier than the Public Theater’s Breitbart-baiting staging, which featured a cigar-puffing combed-over Gregg Henry as Caesar. Here, the analogues are fuzzier, almost opaque. We don’t appear to be in Rome, or essentially in America both, however in some half-made city-state of the thoughts. The set, by Sibyl Wickersheimer, is a free scaffold of plastic sheeting, plywood pallets and splintered Sheetrock. (Has anybody ever blamed Rome’s decline and fall on unhealthy contractors?) This is a home already divided in opposition to itself. Anyone in the first few rows ought to in all probability be issued a tough hat.

The play, right here titled “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” begins with a crew of plebes wearing grey masks, white dreads and jean shorts. Apparently, they’re celebrating Lupercalia, although their frolic appears to be like much more like heavy metallic evening on the Westside piers. (Despite the casting of girls in just a few small male roles, it is a homosocial world and probably a homoerotic one — loads of the pants are too tight.) A ceiling cradle spills confetti, and right here comes Caesar (Rocco Sisto), smug and smiling, cruising by way of the crowd like some conquering schooner. Already a hero, Caesar, we’re informed, needs to be a king, a tyrant, perhaps even a god. For the Roman Republic to dwell, and since obstruction prices aren’t actually an choice, Caesar has to die.

The moral mind teaser that prompts the play is the query of whether or not it’s O.Ok. to do horrible issues for not so horrible causes, that outdated means-and-ends riddle. Short reply: No. So if anybody out there’s hatching extrajudicial plans to take away controversial world leaders, Shakespeare has some phrases and a creepy dream sequence for you. Let’s simply say that to enter the market chanting “Peace, freedom, liberty” isn’t a great look when your fingers are nonetheless bloody.

The horns of that dilemma typically fail to jab right here. Ms. Cooper’s staging is virile — beneath Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, it is usually sometimes sculptural. She appears extra involved in shifting our bodies round fairly than exhibiting us what the minds inside these our bodies is likely to be pondering. Once shortly her work is electrical, like the homicide of Cinna the Poet at the fingers and ft of a Caesar-supporting mob. But the scene in the market might be the manufacturing’s greatest, as a result of it cools the spectacle and trusts the language and the males who converse it.

Shakespeare spikes his play with enigmas (is Caesar actually so ruthless, is Brutus actually so upright), and we glance to a director to assist us puzzle them out. Instead, Ms. Cooper provides loads of stage blood and loads of stage enterprise and dance numbers that seem like an particularly savage Zumba class.

Mr. Sisto’s Caesar, assured and fatuous, doesn’t counsel his ambition or its lack. Jordan Barbour’s Mark Antony, first found with the Lupercalia ravers, stays a cipher. As Brutus, Brandon J. Dirden — an actor of intrinsic heat and gravitas — communicates Brutus’s the Aristocracy, although to promote it he typically falls into the rhythms of a sermon, and even this characterization feels skinny.

Matthew Amendt’s Cassius is appropriately lean, and Stephen Michael Spencer’s Caska looks like the variety of man who joins a vicious assassination scheme only for the hell of it. Barret O’Brien’s Decius Brutus has some neatly weaselly moments. The different conspirators largely simply glom collectively. The girls in the play have perilously little to do, so Ms. Cooper places Tiffany Rachelle Stewart’s Calphurnia and Merritt Janson’s Portia into scenes the place they don’t belong, which helps slightly. (Ms. Janson, a spiky and willowy performer, is at all times price watching.) Mostly, the actors have sufficient consolation with the language to place throughout its important that means, however not the ease both to play with it or in opposition to it.

Sitting in the theater as blood splashed and partitions fell, I couldn’t inform what had attracted Ms. Cooper to the play past its violence. The traces from 1599 and the world as it’s right now should have fashioned a sort of couplet in her thoughts. But that rhyme refused to scan. I might admire the footage on the stage and the stamina of the actors who made them, however the story and its themes saved eluding me. I’d wished to consider tyranny and justice and the hazard of radical motion and what any of us can and will do, even when, or particularly as a result of, I’m feeling my very own resistance fatigue and deleting most calls to motion unread. I didn’t take into consideration these issues. I thought of the dance routines.

And nonetheless, I used to be struck, perhaps for the first time, by one of the play’s most slippery ironies. Assuming greatest motives, Brutus and the different conspirators kill Caesar to protect the Roman Republic. But the Republic dies anyway, and consultant authorities stays lifeless. For centuries. “Julius Caesar” is a reminder, unneeded, of what a really fragile factor a democracy could be. Et tu, Will?

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