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Earl Hindman (Julius Caesar), Hope Chernov (Calpurnia) in Karin Coonrod's "Julius Caesar"In Colder Blood
By Jonathan Kalb

Julius Caesar
By William Shakespeare

Theatre for a New Audience
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St.
Jan. 19 - Mar. 2, 2003

Box office: (212) 239-6200



True to its political essence, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has been spun sundry ways. According to my ninth-grade English teacher (a man who insisted that poetry had to rhyme, ca. 1973), it was a play about good but misguided people obsessed with saving a republic from tyranny. Nothing like a trumpeted half-truth for getting a kid to mistrust authority. In 1941, the great Expressionist director Jürgen Fehling did the play in Berlin with a loftily imperial Caesar (played by Werner Krauss) whose fall was treated as a metaphysical catastrophe. After the war, Fehling claimed that--Shakespeare's text being intact--his production had really been an act of anti-Nazi resistance. Trevor Nunn, in 1972 London, depicted Caesar's Rome explicitly as a fascist police state, guarded by Mussolini-style black-shirts. There, John Wood's self-hating "noble Brutus" seemed to have no hope of redeeming his country because he didn't believe in his own nobility.

Now Karin Coonrod has brought us a Julius Caesar for the Bush/Enron era, with its appalling shamelessness about corporate privilege, its "selected" leader's bogus claim to a popular mandate, and its bullying "realpolitik," smeared like crude plaster over all the cracks in the leader's understanding of complex issues. Coonrod's Roman ruling elite wear uniform, coal-black business suits, accessorized at times with cloaks but otherwise wholly contemporary (costumes by Catherine Zuber). These predominantly young Romans are comfortably entitled former frat-boys who--with the single exception of Brutus--care nothing for ideals, or even competence. They brood, conspire, murder, and justify amid a shifting array of rough concrete panels that split them into factions (sometimes showing only their legs) and underscore the bare-knuckles nature of the game they presume they're playing (set by Douglas Stein). Their murder of Caesar is like an internal housekeeping matter, a ritual expulsion from Skull and Bones.

Coonrod's Theatre for a New Audience production is sleek, lucid, nimble, and punctuated with a profusion of electronic booms and light blasts in the audience's eyes. Employing a severely cut text (edited by Edward Hall and Roger Warren, with Coonrod's help), it clocks in at less than two intermissionless hours, its considerable power residing in the clarity of several key actors and in its grim impression of a snowballing epochal disaster. Earl Hindman's Julius Caesar is a tired, pot-bellied hulk of a man who walks with a cane at home and exudes a pompous, devil-may-care, rhetorically self-aggrandizing air. Daniel Oreskes's balding, high-strung Cassius is just the joker to give this snowball a push--the archetypal unctuous, paranoid "beta male" who smells infirmity in his bitterly envied "alpha" rival and instinctively itches to exterminate him.

Brutus--who is really the play's central role, notwithstanding Shakespeare's title--is traditionally played as the idealistic complement to all the others' meanness and depravity, but the role is tricky, since the actor has to convey something of Hamlet's ruminativeness without hesitating to act, and has to be likeable without denying that his hands are bloody and that loathsome Cassius is his good friend. Thomas M. Hammond doesn't quite negotiate this balance. His Brutus is a moderate and thoughtful voice temporarily tolerated in a chorus of violence and haste. With his close-cropped beard and brooding manner, he comes off too exclusively as an intellectual scapegoat, winningly tender with his wife Portia (powerfully played by Kristin Flanders) but less than plausible as the belligerent general at Philippi. His skill is too much in bandying words--with Portia in Act II, with Antony and Octavius before the climactic battle, with Cassius in their petty spat the night before that--and too little in showing he can also command those less utopian-minded than he.

Graham Winton's Mark Antony, by contrast, has a thoughtful and nonbelligerent bearing that he turns to tremendous advantage. With chilling ease, he moves with precision through all the improbably instantaneous emotional shifts on which his character's life depends--from sincere outrage after Caesar's murder, to sincere respect when shaking hands with his killers, to sincere irony in his famously manipulative speech to the crowd at Caesar's funeral, to casual ruthlessness in assigning death-warrants afterward. His face is anomalously kind and utterly remorseless, like a consummate con man's, and only the still colder blood of Octavius trips him up in the end: the opportunist par excellence meets Opportunist Maximus and, expectably, is more Stoically bemused than surprised or disappointed. The Rome of high-minded ideals for which Brutus insisted Caesar died is clearly doomed no matter who ends up in charge, a point Coonrod italicizes (deliberately, I presume) by casting the weak, boyish, and diffident Michael Ray Escamilla as the future emperor Octavius.

Bloody Conspirators in Karin Coonrod's "Julius Caesar"

The price for all this lucid streamlining--and yes, there is one--is differentiation. In their zeal to shorten the text, the editors eliminated almost all specific characterization of the Roman crowd, for instance. It's often said that Shakespeare held "the mob" in contempt, but whatever the truth of that, he knew how to make crowd members pivotal to his dramas, turning fleeting cameos into gems of tiny portraiture (wholly lost here) and revealing important distinctions among his aristocrats via distinctions in their public speech (which partly depend on particularized reactions). Shakespeare plants important political information in his "mob" cameos--taking the temperature of the average worker, for instance, on the question of whether Julius Caesar is truly a danger to Roman society. Here, that information is attenuated and blurred as depersonalized shouting from a sea of cloak-hoods.

Similarly, all the play's "outsider" characters--the independent-minded Senator Cicero, the soothsayer at the opening, the teacher of rhetoric Artemidorus, and the hapless poet Cinna whom the crowd tears apart simply because he shares a name with a conspirator--are played by a single actor. Curzon Dobell, dressed less formally than the others in a knit cap and long black coat, acts all these roles with the same slight slouch and vague expression of distress, making little attempt to distinguish them. Coonrod's point here seems to be that anyone who lacks class standing or political backing but who presumes to speak with an individual voice is so ineffectual that he might as well be lumped into one barely noticeable person. An understandable trope for the media age, perhaps, but the problems of speaking truth to power were more nuanced for Shakespeare.

What Coonrod's production captures most memorably is the desperate, bottomless cynicism of Julius Caesar, which one intemperate scholar once likened to a malicious "practical joke" played by the author on his audiences. Its vivid and muscular language aside, the permanent viability of this play, throughout the world, rests on the enduring paradox that we humans are capable, at one and the same time, of being outraged at manipulative political speech and of willingly surrendering to it. Demagoguery wasn't any more news in Shakespeare's day, or Plutarch's, or Julius Caesar's, than it is today, of course, yet the notion that both benevolent and malevolent power rely on it--can't carry out their policies without it--is permanently provocative because it casts each one of us in a terrible light. Coonrod's Bush-whacking Julius Caesar underlines that central question of whether the human animal deserves democracy--which is obviously as unsettled on the eve of Iraqi invasion as it was at the height of Elizabeth I's police state.



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