Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
With Denzel Washington as its star, Julius Caesar may be doing business at the box office, but does Washington have any business in this politics-at-its-ugliest Shakespeare opus? On the evidence of the Marcus Brutus that he's offering at present, the answer is a blunt "No!" When the handsome, often awesome actor took on Richard III for the New York Shakespeare Festival a few years ago, the results were unpersuasive. As Brutus, Washington is at sea, even though he has two Oscars on his mantle and a fair amount of stage experience in contemporary works behind him.

Racing through the Bard's poetry as if he has to catch a flight to his next film set, he's virtually unintelligible, which obviously isn't the right approach for Shakespeare's thinking (and reading) Roman. Indeed, there are times -- often when others are speaking -- that this inert Brutus doesn't appear to be thinking at all but to have fallen into a trance. Possibly he's remembering that Mark Antony will eventually call him "the noblest Roman of them all" and thinking that he therefore must display an air of nobility, so he stands like a public-square statue with eyes unfocused and arms held straight down, pulling in at the shoulders.

More likely, though, Washington just can't get the hang of who Brutus is and how to play him. Of course, he knows that he needs to muster a certain amount of combustibility for the famous speech that he gives over Julius Caesar's bloody corpse, so he becomes somewhat animated (without proceeding all the way to fiery) in this sequence. He also knows that, in the battlefield confrontation with Cassius, Brutus's longtime pal is going to say, "I did not think you could have been so angry." He'll have to have supplied some reason for the remark, so he does throw off a few sparks. But that's about it.

Washington's performance is all the more clearly insufficient because Colm Feore, whose name suggests calm fire, isn't calm at all as Cassius; he's het up from the minute he hits the stage, talking about ridding himself and his confederates of the play's supposedly "ambitious" title character. Whereas Washington is demonstrating how not to perform a Shakespeare's play, Feore is practically giving a how-to master class. His Cassius has a decidedly lean and hungry look; he also has any number of defiant and disdainful looks to propel across the stage like stray bullets.

With a Cassius like this, passionately warning Brutus about Mark Antony's persuasive powers, and with a Brutus who looks as if he's taking in nothing, Shakespeare's play is skewed. Supposedly, the playwright based his narrative on Plutarch's Life of Brutus, which is why it's generally considered Brutus's play -- with Mark Antony making commanding drop-bys. This time around, however, it's possible to wonder why Julius Caesar's hopped-up assassins don't rally round the go-getter Cassius and feel no need for the ineffectual Brutus to join their cabal.

The hole at the center of the play, which helmer Dan Sullivan apparently can't help fill, isn't the only drawback of this expensive-looking production. Sullivan's idea of a war-ravaged look is too obvious. He isn't the first to want to suggest the similarity between Shakespeare's militaristic politicos and more contemporary figures, and it's undoubtedly too much to hope he'll be the last, but here he is putting the male cast members in drab three-button suits and then desert camouflage. (The commendable Jess Goldstein is the costumer.) Then Sullivan sends them scurrying over the gray-and-black set that Ralph Funicello has designed to resemble Fallujah after weeks of insurgent activities. (Sound designer Don Moses Schreier provides the ear-splitting thunder, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin the lightning.) It's worth recalling that the Rome to which Julius Caesar returned had prospered, largely because of the general's successes; it was elsewhere that he'd laid waste. Taking some liberties is allowable, but taking such blatant liberties is unnecessary; audiences don't need quite so much spelled out for them.

Anything noteworthy about this Julius Caesar is contained in several performances -- for which Sullivan, of course, deserves at least some credit. Aside from Feore, who walks off with the show as if with a medal for winning a chariot race, William Sadler is a shrewd, wiry Julius Caesar. He's totally believable as a man who'd know how to outwit armies. Jack Willis is a memorable Casca. (Shakespeare filled his text with corrosive humor -- the cynicism of the decadent -- and Willis gets all his laughs.) Patrick Page has some sly moments as Decius Brutus, cajoling Caesar to come to the Senate despite fears expressed by Calpurnia (a so-so Tamara Tunie). When last seen on stage, Jessica Hecht was trying to get through to an obtuse husband in Arthur Miller's After the Fall, and now here she is doing getting-through-to-obtuse-husband duty again as Portia. She sure has the nervous, put-upon persona down. Less triumphant is Eamonn Walker's Mark Antony. When blasting the magnificent and manipulative "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" oratory, the burly Walker has some dynamism but tends to swallow his words whole.

Several decades ago, composer Bill Weeden and I wrote a song called "I've Seen Shakespeare Done in Modern Dress" for one of the Upstairs at the Downstairs revues. Just this once, I'm going to quote from my own work, because the satirical ditty's verse is woefully applicable at the moment: "Shakespeare's plays are universal / So when you guys call rehearsal / You think you've got to make him timely / But for me there's one deterrent / Current, your productions weren't / So, in the future, call the play off / And lay off." Denzel Washington and this Julius Caesar aren't current, they're just ineffectively trendy.