On the first week of its run, I was lucky enough to win tickets to the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. Despite the rain, the audience and I shivered in our ponchos and managed to fill about half the Delacorte Theater. This was my third time going to Shakespeare in the Park, and Caesar did not disappoint; Corey Stoll as Brutus was phenomenal, John Douglas Thompson was a stunning Cassius, Elizabeth Marvel played Marc Antony with amazing versatility, Nikki M. James was incredible as Portia, etc. etc. Aside from the acting, the lighting and special effects were engaging and fun.
Let me get this straight: I highly, highly recommend seeing this production if you can. Go as soon as possible, the ticket line and standby line be damned. It’s memorable and it’s free and it’s definitely worth your time.
That said, I was taken aback when I realized that this play would be a modern adaptation of Caesar. The set includes large panels filled with the Constitution and the Capitol building. The senators aren’t in togas, but in suits. And Julius Caesar enters with loud rock music, a fog machine, a CEO’s stride, and a ridiculous tuft of hair that makes it clear who he’s supposed to remind us of. We laughed as he made his way across the stage, making finger guns, waving, and shaking the hands of nearby audience members.
While it was clear that Caesar had been chosen by the Public Theater due to our current political climate, their modernization felt odd and even, at times, goofy and tone-deaf.
There are some fun nods to our current situation, such as Calpurnia’s foreign accent, the line “Caesar could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose the Romans’ support” (or some variant of that line that I’ve since forgotten precisely), and, most hilariously, the use of smartphones, particularly in recording the stabbing of Caesar. Hold my cold brew, I’m ‘gramming the assassination.
The adaptation as a whole, however, felt very confused in trying to modernize ancient Rome into contemporary Washington, D.C. The soothsayer that warns Caesar about the Ides of March wears a Guy Fawkes mask, the icon of the hacker group Anonymous. When Cassius meets with Brutus to discuss their plan to kill Caesar, Cassius runs onstage with a pussyhat and a banner that says “resist.” Brutus and Cassius aren’t exiled from the city and left with their own armies to fight Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, but become part of the democracy-leaning resistance movement, who chants “No Justice! No Peace!” and other similar chants we’ve heard in every protest before and since the election. Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, then, continue to symbolize the monarchy that Caesar stood for? But with fascistic tendencies to make it seem more like something that could happen in this day and age? And isn’t the Caesar-Trump parallel a little forced, as Julius Caesar was a decorated and well-respected war hero? These modernized readings felt lacking and watered-down in context, both Shakespeare’s and our own. This Roman foot didn’t fit into our modern-day polished leather shoe.
To be fair, I think the spirit of the play is entirely intact. The Romans are swayed easily both by Brutus’s rhetoric and Antony’s pathos, evoking the same phenomena we’ve dealt with from both parties when hearing strong arguments and sensational news. Mob mentality has tremendous and terrifying power. The fear of upholding democracy in the face of rising absolute power still registers.
(At this point I should mention that I haven’t read this play before watching this production, nor have I studied Shakespeare extensively. I’m unsure how he felt about democracy and monarchy, though I imagine that having to please the Queen meant that his works had to have some sort of pro-Monarchy bias to them. A “putting the rightful King on the throne” motif happens quite a bit in Shakespeare’s works as a result, such as in Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.)
I should also state that I do enjoy modern adaptations. For all their flaws, I enjoyed 10 Things I Hate About You and Romeo + Juliet. This adaption, however, seemed to fall flat for me for being too on-the-nose while misunderstanding certain politically-charged markers of our current political divide.
If I’m being so rough on this adaptation, perhaps it’s because that on the weekend following the election, I was fortunate enough to watch the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written by Bertolt Brecht. It was performed by a small, ten-person cast in the equally small Wild Project theater, and the director had clearly wanted to make the play an homage to Brecht and his groundbreaking approach to theater.
Ui was played straight, with fedora-sporting gangsters, old-school microphones, and other props and markers to place ourselves in 1930s Chicago. Or 1930s Germany, really, considering that Brecht had made the two locations analogous. The actor playing Arturo Ui, Craig Smith, wasn’t deliberately trying to be any current politician, but simply a buffoon who learned how to be a menacing orator and a manipulative politician. Even within the play, Smith was simply Arturo Ui, not Adolf Hitler, though clearly Brecht made sure that there were parallels between the two. No lines were added or changed for a modern surprise that the audience would notice. While the theater’s Facebook page was definitely using the election as a way to garner interest about the production, the performance itself was true to its source material.
As a result, I had chills at the end of the play. These chills were noticeably absent when I left the Delacorte Theater after Caesar.
In many respects, Caesar is the more complex, more interesting play. Ui shows a criminal’s rise to power, while Caesar shows the fragility of democracy. What went wrong with my experiences? Is there a saturation point when it comes to adapting plays for a modern audience?
In the May 12th issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Maria Margaronis reviews a production of Ui at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Her review, “Second Time as Farce,” mentions similar complaints about this adaptation from critics that I have about the Public Theater’s Caesar adaptation. “Critics have complained that Bruce Norris’s adaptation at the Donmar Warehouse tries too hard to update the play with references to ‘the leader of a certain nation,’ sprinkling the great dictator’s lines with obvious Trumpisms,” Margaronis states, and adds that Norris’s adaptation includes a banner that reads “Make This Country Great Again” as well as a line about “a nasty woman.” She sums up her review disappointed, writing that “it’s difficult now to give Brecht the edge he needs . . . perhaps the production’s failure to shock is its darkest warning. We find it all too easy now to laugh at its potentates.”
Maybe Margaronis would have watched the same production as I had and come out with the same review, but it seems much more likely to me that the pitfalls for both the Public Theater’s Caesar and Norris’s Ui lie in molding the plays too much toward the ephemeral news of the day, not trusting the audience enough to make these contemporary connections themselves, worrying that too much dust has settled on the original works. Unlike her, I don’t think it’s our modern moment that leaves us feeling less shocked than we should be at Brecht and Shakespeare, rather that the adaptations we’re given are too informed by our modern moment to give us the benefit of the doubt.
I’m wondering if this current trend of jam-packing plays with contemporary nods will continue with future adaptations, as it feels like more and more political-thriller plays are being announced each week (including, I believe, many more adaptations of Ui and Caesar).
I’m also wondering whether it’s more effective to have these plays keep their biting characteristics as originally intended or to continue to have these modern updates as a sort of validation that our political climate is affecting so much of our public consciousness. It was certainly revelatory to me after watching Ui to feel unsettled and astounded at the power of theater, but what if it was just as eye-opening for other audience members to have these dramatic parallels pointed out for them? When I left the Delacorte, I heard a number of audience members talking excitedly. They were amazed at the similarities between the politics of today and those that Shakespeare wrote about four hundred years ago. Is a cold, sweat-inducing fear what we need? Or do we need a cathartic, easy-to-handle manifestation of what we fear in front of us to laugh and poke fun at?
I’ll continue to think about these questions while I’m watching Clarence Darrow on Friday night.