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BWW Review: Black Roman Lives Matter in Trump-Themed JULIUS CAESAR

For the past 400+ years, the title character in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has been traditionally regarded as one of the good guys. Oh sure, there was that time back in '37 when Orson Welles staged a production that had the Roman ruler interpreted as a stand-in for Mussolini, but The Bard's text is generally taken as a case where a powerful, but ultimately benevolent leader is assassinated by a group of questionably motivated, dagger-wielding senators who paint him as an ambitious populist seeking absolute power.

BWW Review: Black Roman Lives Matter in Trump-Themed JULIUS CAESAR
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere
and Elizabeth Marvel (Photo: Joan Marcus)

As depicted in the play, Caesar's murder plunges Rome into a state of bloody anarchy that ends when the dead man's adopted son, Octavius, puts himself into a position to dissolve his father's republic and become Rome's first emperor.

In 2012, a production of Julius Caesar at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, co-produced with The Acting Company, was set in the then-contemporary time of "Occupy Rome" and presented an African-American Caesar, no doubt intended to represent President Barack Obama, killed by a group of radicals that might be considered representatives of the Tea Party; an interpretation widely regarded as being sympathetic to the murdered leader.

But sympathy is turned topsy-turvy in the aggressively political, moderately satirical new mounting at Shakespeare In The Park's Delacorte Theater, directed by The Public Theater's artistic director Oskar Eustis. Call it bold, call it offensive, call it incisive or call it heavy-handed; this is a fiercely opinionated, extremely well-acted production, set in present day Washington D.C., that demands your attention throughout its breathtaking intermissionless two hours.

The initial reason for all the pre-opening buzz, of course, is that Gregg Henry plays the title role sporting yellow locks, a baggy suit, a too-long tie and a hulking air of confidence strongly suggesting President Donald Trump. Tina Benko plays Caesar's wife Calpurnia dressed in high fashion, displaying a model's elegant poise and a liquidy Slavic accent.

Their first scene together includes public pussy-grabbing and a sharp slap on the wrist when Caesar tries holding his wife's hand. The play has been shaved by a quarter, allowing Eustis to have Rome's leader presented as a self-involved buffoon. The game Henry even bares his butt to the audience during an indulgent bathtub scene.

But this isn't just a full-length gimmick. John Douglas Thompson, one of the New York stage's great classical actors, is a powerfully gritty force as Cassius, leader of the faction of conspirators who would use bloodshed to remove Caesar. As his colleagues are introduced (including Teagle F. Bougere as Casca, Christopher Livingston as Cinna, Eisa Davis as Decius Brutus and Chris Myers as Ligarius) it becomes apparent that the resistance is a movement run by people of color.

BWW Review: Black Roman Lives Matter in Trump-Themed JULIUS CAESAR
Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson and
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cassius' determination to get Caesar's beloved friend Brutus on his side, by appealing to his patriotism over friendship, is usually seen as an attempt to secure a popular figure who is also a skilled orator to act as a convincingly sincere public mouthpiece, but given that Brutus is here played by a white actor (emotionally conflicted Corey Stoll) it adds the suggestion that Cassius specifically wants an influentiAl White man to help gain support. Brutus seems a likely candidate because his wife, Portia, is played by Nikki M. James, who is black.

Racial issues also come into play when the white actor playing Marc Antony dismisses all the other conspirators as merely being envious of Caesar, regarding Brutus as the only one acting for the common good.

That actor playing Antony is Elizabeth Marvel. Pronouns are switched to make it clear that the male character is here being played as a woman. First appearing in a red, white and blue track suit, she's an enthused cheerleader for Caesar. But at the play's pivotal moment, Caesar's funeral, where her well-crafted eulogy ("Friends, Romans, countrymen...") whips the crowd into a violent frenzy against all who side with the assassins, she's revealed to be a master manipulator.

Marvel digs into the speech with a striking display of elocution and physicality, running up and across the theatre aisles to get close and personal with the growing mob of actors. And it's here where a cynical 2017 playgoer may begin to question her reports of Caesar's selflessness and generosity. Are they merely alternative facts?

While not every moment of Shakespeare's text fits comfortably into Eustis' concept, there is still a parade of visuals effectively connecting the play to contemporary events. Before the show begins, audience members are invited to come up on stage to get a closer look at the protest art pasted onto David Rockwell's set, and place a message on the wall with a Post-It, like so many Union Square subway commuters did in the days following Trump's election.

As the soothsayer who warns Caesar to beware the Ides of March, Mayaa Boateng wears an Anonymous mask. Knitted pink cat caps are seen as is an unsettling confrontation between unarmed protestors and police in riot gear. A bit subtler is the way a late-in-the-game confrontation between Cassius and Brutus suggests the kind of infighting that many have claimed to hold back the progress of America's left wing.

Perhaps the scene closest to Eustis' heart is the one where the poet Cinna (a sweet and touching Yusef Bulos ), maybe representing all artists, gets harassed and then beaten by a group of bullying police officers looking to round up anyone suspected of siding against Caesar.

The evening before Monday night's opening, both Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their financial support of The Public Theater, stating this production to be the reason. Even the National Endowment For The Arts released a statement separating themselves from it.

One would expect that The Public was well aware that this interpretation would cause them to lose some supporters, but the belief that art can be a powerful force in making statements and swaying opinions has caused countless artists to take such risks. That's why Rome's police were so anxious to arrest the seemingly harmless poet.

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