Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Through April 28, $90-$115
Director Shana Cooper makes her Off Broadway debut with a fierce, violent adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, running at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center through April 28. Cooper’s version is bold and aggressive, set in a Rome that is falling apart by the minute. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set features crumbling white drywall, slabs of which serve as bridges connecting the stage to the aisles in the audience (which many characters use to enter and exit scenes), and a large statue sloppily wrapped in a sheet with packing tape. Raquel Barreto’s costumes range from contemporary suits, dresses, leather jackets, and hoodies to cultlike outfits with creepy masks worn by Caesar’s (three-time Obie winner Rocco Sisto) partying supporters. The story is familiar: After military triumphs, Caesar returns to Rome as a fantastically populist hero; the entrenched power holders, the Roman senators, panic at the thought of his mob of true believers proclaiming him king/dictator and destroying the republic. Following the rally at which Caesar is three times offered and three times refuses a crown presented by Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour), a group of senators and soldiers plot to assassinate Caesar, led by Brutus (Obie winner Brandon J. Dirden), Cassius (Matthew Amendt), and Caska (Stephen M. Spencer). “It is no matter. Let no images / Be hung with Caesar’s trophies. I’ll about, / And drive away the vulgar from the streets,” coconspirator and senator Cinna (Armando McClain) declares.
Cassius adds, “And why should Caesar be a tyrant then? / Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf, / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep. / Those that with haste will make a mighty fire / Begin it with weak straws. What trash is Rome? / What rubbish and what offal? When it serves / For the base matter to illuminate / So vile a thing as Caesar!” Substitute “deplorables” for “base matter” and Trump for Caesar, and Shakespeare’s genius for illuminating human nature is stunningly clear. A soothsayer (Michelle Hurst) warns Caesar to “beware the Ides of March,” but the august leader dismisses her prophecy. Joined by Decius Brutus (Barrett O’Brien), Trebonius (Mark Bedard), Metellus Cimber (Ted Deasy), and Caius Ligarius (Liam Craig), the senators attack Caesar, whose own triumvirate of loyalists consists of Antony, Octavius Caesar (Benjamin Bonenfant), and Lepidus (Craig). Brutus is the most conflicted by the coming assassination attempt, fraught with worry about taking action against a man he professes to love. The conspirators might have thought they were saving Rome, but soon they are at war, threatening the stability of the city and leaving behind a trail of blood.
Cooper infuses her telling with a ferocious, unrelenting male energy as characters shout and run around the theater, immersing the audience in the proceedings. She and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch turn the battle scenes into brutal, vicious dances that counterbalance the earlier, gentle passion displayed among the men as they softly touch and look lustfully at one another, giving textured meaning to such lines as “I have much mistook your passion” and “Nor construe any further my neglect / Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war / Forgets the show of love to other men.” The play occasionally rides off the rails, as when it uses two posters of watching eyes. Dirden (Jitney, All the Way) is the heart of the show as Brutus fights to stay true to his soul and prove to his wife, Portia (Merritt Janson), that he is a good man, a very different kind of Brutus as compared to, for example, Corey Stoll’s conniving, manipulative version in Oskar Eustis’s controversial Shakespeare in the Park adaptation that explicitly turned Caesar into Donald Trump. Cooper’s thrillingly testosterone-fueled production demonstrates that Julius Caesar is likely to always be relevant as long as men strive for power — and others seek to take them down.