David McCallum as Julius Caesar(Photo: Michal Daniel)
David McCallum as Julius Caesar
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
It's always smart to schedule a production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar--the current Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park offering--during a presidential campaign. Audience members are practically guaranteed to nod their heads and murmur "still timely" while experiencing pangs of recognition at all the political cutthroat.

Of course, in this play "cut-throat" is meant quite literally. As is "blood bath," since Caesar's assassins complete the ritual of their slicing him up by dipping their hands and forearms in his blood, reveling in it for a few ghoulish minutes and only then dispatching Brutus to explain to the outraged city electorate why murder was necessary.

Brutus--for those who don't remember the drama from high school--does famously make the mistake of allowing Marc Antony to speak after him. This season, it could be that the line-up of speakers will make playgoers think of nominee George W. Bush's adept acceptance speech as followed by Al Gore's rabble-rousing one.

That Marc Antony's sleek and manipulative address is still being delivered 400 years after it was first written (and Al Gore's likely will not be) isn't a concern here; nor does the fact that Antony extemporizes in blank verse, while Brutus declaims in prose, find much of a parallel in the Bush-Gore lectern-thumpers. But the attempt by both Brutus and Antony to galvanize and sway an edgy, malleable mob definitely has a contemporary ring, and probably always will. Certainly, director Barry Edelstein, who has for some time been demonstrating his knack for slapping Shakespeare into life, works efficiently to make the Bard's message concerning the steep price paid for political expediency register as cogent.

Quick and to the point, Julius Caesar takes place during the first few days and months after the title character (played by David McCallum) has subdued his predecessor, Pompey. He returns so triumphantly to Rome that his followers fear he may accept the citizens' demands that he become emperor. Those worried about Caesar's becoming omnipotent to the detriment of their own vaulting ambition are Marc Antony (played by Jeffrey Wright, listed as "Mark Antony" in the program), who nonetheless is wily about biding time before planting his own banner; Brutus (Jamey Sheridan), who's in a moral debate with himself on the honorable way to proceed; and Caius Cassius (Dennis Boutsikaris), who's determined to get revenge on a leader with whom he's fallen out of favor.

Jamey Sheridan (at desk) as Brutus(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Jamey Sheridan (at desk) as Brutus
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
In a much briefer time than Plutarch reported it actually took for the dark events to unfold, Cassius enlists Brutus to join him in the plot to snuff out the flattery-friendly Caesar. Marc Antony, the shrewdest strategist of them all, wins the plebeians to his side and throws in with Octavius Caesar and his advancing army. By play's end, Cassius' malevolence has backfired, Brutus' misguided probity has been his undoing, and Antony lives to show up a few tragedies later as Cleopatra's sated paramour.

For this Julius Caesar, Edelstein and set designer Narelle Sissons have imagined a city-state already in an advanced state of decay. The stones of Rome are askew; graffiti is rife. On one side of the littered stage, a huge, gilt replica of Caesar's head hangs from a crane as if decapitated, while a severed marble hand lies helplessly on the other side. Fires smolder beneath metal grates and flare up unpredictably.

Across this already bloodied cityscape, Edelstein's actors swarm like an infestation of roaches. And the major pests--er, thespians--are each in his way frighteningly effective. (This is a man's play in which the only women--Calpurnia, Portia, a caterwauling seer--smell the befouled air but can do nothing to sweeten it.) As Caesar, McCallum is both commanding and puerile, at once nobody's fool and everybody's, which is how Shakespeare wrote the part. Noting that Cassius "has a lean and hungry look," McCallum gets Caesar's perspicacity across, but he's also good at playing the overgrown boy who demands to have his way. Edelstein takes advantage of McCallum's size; the actor is shorter than those who play his assassins, and therefore his violent end, with so many bodies looming over him, is all the more horrifying.


Jeffrey Wright as Marc Antony(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Jeffrey Wright as Marc Antony
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Wright understands the comments about heroes that Shakespeare astutely makes: there are none, only temporarily successful opportunists. And so he turns Antony's lines, most notably the plummy "Friends, Romans, countrymen" lamentation, into a first-rate debater's victory. With his voice rising and falling and his torso twisting as sinuously as a gymnast's, he makes it seem that he would have shaped to his advantage whatever side of the argument he'd been assigned. Wright's Antony is so drolly devious, he's even able to suggest that the will he reads, saying he found it in Caesar's closet, is a convincing prop grabbed from a bottomless sack of orator's tricks.

Probably cast not only because he boasts a stunning Roman nose, Sheridan suffers the torments of hell as Brutus. As with Wright's heroic Antony, he has the heroic bearing Brutus needs and a swagger that makes other men admire--but also stand apart from--him. He's formidable enough to summon the thought that Shakespeare should have more accurately named the play The Tragedies of Brutus and Antony.

Boutsikaris doesn't have the lean and hungry look ascribed to Caius Cassius; he's chunky, if not chubby. But it doesn't matter. He has a conniving and predatory look, as well as a knowing glint in his eye. He also speaks the lines with an authority that threatens to overshadow his fellow evildoers. Boutsikaris makes especially amusing and ominous the iambic pentameter in which he works his wiles on Brutus; giving his version of Caesar's frailties, he makes disdain palpable. With Boutsikaris on stage, it almost seems as if Shakespeare should have called this one The Tragedy of Caius Cassius..

Although the cast isn't uniformly good, and although the overeager mob at first looks as if it's been bused over from the shuttering Jesus Christ Superstar, there are a number of solid supporting performances. The most amusing is Ritchie Coster as Casca, who gets to report to Brutus and Cassius on Caesar's behavior in the Forum--how the conquering hero refuses three times to accept the offered emperor's crown. Coster sees Casca ("Caska" in the program) as a bloke who looks out for number one by affecting the manner of a court gossip.

Edelstein's deployment of so many skillful actors goes a far distance toward explaining why this Julius Caesar keeps the audience attentive, at least through Shakespeare's Act III when Marc Antony gets to mouth off. But Edelstein also has other clever notions, such as having John Gromada's thundering music supplied by an on-stage percussionist. Yet another bright idea involves adding Cassius to the roster when Brutus and cronies arrive to accompany Caesar to the capitol; that way, Edelstein makes sure Cassius is on hand for Caesar to snub him.

And now, just a word about the tragedy's second half, Acts IV and V. These are the scenes in which Brutus and Cassius, both battling their consciences, also battle the armies led by Antony and Octavius. Elizabethans loved to see a good fight, and since they didn't have the movies, stage representations had to suffice. Contemporary audiences, though, have Hollywood, and once they've seen, say, Steven Spielberg recreate D-Day, there isn't much tingle in watching a handful of actors gallop out from the wings to confront each other with weapons in hand. So Edelstein has his work cut out for him. The approach he and fight director J. Steven White take here is stylization: actors miming combat with unseen foes. It's an okay solution, but not a new one, and not something to get audiences on the edge of their seats.

So all right; when the play was produced in 1599, the year the Globe opened, the groundlings may have stood through the first half to get to the fourth- and fifth-act saber wielding. In the year 2000, it's the other way around. And thanks to Edelstein and players, yon Julius Caesar has a lean and persuasive look.