Politics is a game of chance and choice. So, in many ways, is theater. It’s strange, then, to see a production of a classic play about politics take no chances, make no choices. It’s even stranger to pay Broadway prices for it.
But that’s exactly what’s happening in Daniel Sullivan’s hand-me-down staging of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s title character, you may recall, went down in history for having the absolute worst day ever before a senate subcommittee. You’d think, in this age of passion politics, a drama pitting putatively providential demagoguery (i.e., JC) against ruthlessly upright integrity (embodied by Denzel Washington’s Brutus) would evoke some contemporary resonance — an overtone of ”Et tu, McCain?” perhaps.
Well, cry refund and let slip the dogs of snore. This Caesar contains two or three living, breathing moments (e.g., the ”Friends, Romans, countrymen” eulogy, satisfyingly macerated by Oz’s Eamonn Walker) and some stellar supporting performances (William Sadler’s magnetically vulnerable Caesar and Jack Willis’ scene-stealing Casca, in particular). But the bulk of it looks to have been looted from a drama-department basement, from the lazy costumery (fatigues and leather jackets? Please, get with the new authoritarianism!) to the bleached, heaping ruins of the set. (Where’s that crushing sense of sky? Half the play’s ominous imagery lives in the upper atmosphere!)
But it’s the center that doesn’t hold here. Washington fumbles in his bag of tics and comes up with a discontinuous, weirdly impacted performance that consists chiefly of arriving on stage and being Denzel Washington. He seems perpetually on the verge of tears or rage or rue — doesn’t matter which. Emoting equals fist clenching and pocket rifling, signifying nothing more than lack of motivational commitment. We’re left feeling Brutus stabbed Caesar simply because he needed something to do with his hands.