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Theater review by Adam Feldman
The first production of Shakespeare in the Park this summer is a contemporary account of Julius Caesar, and the knives are already out for it. Directed by Public Theater torchbearer Oskar Eustis, this version of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy is set in modern-day Washington, D.C., complete with a Caesar (Gregg Henry) whose clothes, mannerisms, fluffy hair and Slavic-accented wife (Tina Benko) unmistakably suggest Donald Trump. Since the would-be autocrat comes to a bloody end halfway through the play, Breitbart and other right-leaning news sources have implied that this production is, if not an actual endorsement of Trumpicide, at least distasteful; Delta Air Lines has severed its relationship with the the Public in the resulting imbroglio, and Bank of America has pulled its sponsorship of the show.
If you are familiar with the play, however, you know that the Senate’s complot to kill Caesar, led by Brutus (a gentle, low-energy Corey Stoll) and Cassius (a hot-headed John Douglas Thompson), backfires dramatically. The conspirators are massacred, and instead of saving the republic, they trigger riots—fanned by the brilliant rabble-rousing of Caesar loyalist Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel, cannily shaping and weaponizing her emotion)—that entrench Caesar’s slick and arrogant heir, Octavius (Robert Gilbert), on the very throne the rebels were trying to prevent. The play is not an endorsement of violence; it’s a cautionary tale about its risks.
In Eustis’s version, the chief conspirators are mostly people of color, and the mob is not a single fickle mass but a confusion of competing groups: social-justice protesters on one side, red-hatted Caesar fans on the other, with the latter backed by merciless police. (In one key scene, Eustis substitutes murderous citizens with cops.) Although the cast delivers Shakespeare’s verse with remarkable lucidity, the characters are secondary; the focus of this production is on political, not personal, tragedy, and it offers a dark vision of the rise of authoritarianism. Yes, the repeated allusions to Trump elicit giggles of recognition at first. But when the smoke clears two hours later, nobody is laughing.
Tickets are free (two per person) and may be picked up only on the day of performance after noon at the Delacorte Theater. A limited number of tickets are also distributed via online lottery; see our complete guide to Shakespeare in the Park tickets for details.
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