Character Assassination

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Julius Casar; Illustration by Mark Owens

A long-standing debate about whether Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a history play or a tragedy has been resolved by Daniel Sullivan’s production starring Denzel Washington: It is neither; it is a farce. Enacted by a cast part black, part white, but scrupulously equally inadequate, it may be the funniest or most lamentable Shakespeare you’ll ever see. There is one exception: Colm Feore, the Canadian actor of marked talent and thorough training, who makes a terrific Cassius, although one wonders by whose oversight such a solid performer was allowed to stray into this shambles.

When Washington, as Brutus, first wordlessly appears, the Denzel groupies, well represented in the audience, let out an orgiastic yelp I’ve never heard on similar occasions. Thereafter, it remained for the rest of us to yowl, groan, or retch. Washington, a gifted actor in suitable parts, should never have crossed the Rubicon into Julius Caesar. He once managed to be a passable Richard III, but that is an easier part, and in Central Park passable passes for proficient. Here, for most of Act One, he plays Brutus as a naïve sophomore in a college comedy; after that, like said sophomore on an overdose of Dexedrine. Neither mimetically nor vocally appropriate, he gives line readings that tend to be over-the-top or below par, though he does waggle his head with a consummate wobble.

As Mark Antony, Eamonn Walker must have been cast to make Denzel look skilled. Speaking in a strangulated voice that seldom—and then garishly—rises above an inchoate rasp, our hoarse whisperer tries to compensate by decking out Caesar’s funeral oration with ludicrous grimaces and gestures. As the titular hero, William Sadler, a graduate of the Frank Darabont school of movie acting, is a green mile removed from Caesar even visually (hirsute and bearded rather than bald), playing him as a Bowery bum. Even the famed “Et tu, Brute?” gets mispronounced as “Bru-tay.” Jack Willis camps up Casca, but is at least mildly funny, as is Patrick Page as Decius Brutus. Particularly painful are the wives: the frumpy, bad-postured Jessica Hecht, who turns Portia into a kvetching shrew, and Tamara Tunie, whose Calpurnia is one tuneless, sour monotone.

But what sort of concept was in the usually savvy Sullivan’s mind? It comes across as a mixture of knee-jerk liberalism and rampaging political correctness. Most of the marital or fraternal couples calculatedly comprise one black and one white actor. I conclude that acting was of secondary importance; indeed, with the exception of Feore, no one here knows how to speak verse: Some chop it, some spew it, some mince it, and Brutus rattles it off as if afraid of missing the last commuter train.

Also, where and when does it all take place? Ralph Funicello’s creepy sets, with headless statues and ruined walls, once actually crumble; Jess Goldstein’s costumes are of today. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lights and Dan Moses Schreier’s sounds are hell-bent on blinding and deafening us, which for this production might not be so bad. So what is this? Rome after the sacking? Watts during the riots? Haiti, almost any time? The Belasco Theatre and nowhere else? It is all self-contradictory, as is a scene where the Capitol’s metal detectors allow Brutus to pass with a briefcase full of daggers. Catching it on March 31, I felt myself the victim of a premature April 1 joke.

Julius Caesar
Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Belasco Theatre. Through June 12.

Character Assassination