I must have seen nearly 30 productions of Shakespeare in the Park since 1990; so many balmy hours spent under the stars listening to famous actors declaim great poetry. Some of those shows were great, some were not, but I’ll never forget my first: Denzel Washington playing Richard III. A childhood friend and I made the pilgrimage to Central Park and performed the ritual that countless New Yorkers and tourists have done since Joe Papp started his summer institution in the 1950s—spending the morning in a sprawling line on a lawn outside the Delacorte Theater, waiting for tickets to be distributed. One of us lost our ticket voucher an hour before curtain, and a disturbingly attractive French couple (who had gotten tickets but then opted to skip the show) gave us theirs. We decided those gorgeous Gauls were magical beings.
I was delighted to return to the Delacorte this week to see Julius Caesar, which Public Theater head Oskar Eustis has staged like a living political cartoon—and which unquestionably counts among the greats. Actor Gregg Henry plays the title dictator straight up as President Trump, complete with poufy yellow coif and a too-long tie. The sultry Tina Benko adopts a Bela Lugosi accent as Calphurnia, Caesar’s glamorous wife (I guess Laura Benanti was unavailable). The famous assassination is supergory, and the production features 47 extras playing citizens of Rome as modern-day “Resist” protesters. If you want to take a pro-Trump visiting relative to a show, this might not be the one.
Then again, theater is supposed to spur debate. While this show pokes fun at the Don, beneath the satire is Shakespeare’s complex tragedy. Julius Caesar is about the fragility of democracy, how public passions can be swayed by rhetoric and empty gestures. It asks: Do the people need a tyrant to lead them, or should a dictator be defeated by any means necessary? Brutus (Corey Stoll), the play’s tormented hero, does what he thinks is the right thing by helping murder Caesar but ends up unleashing more violence and political repression.
So yes, balmy nights in Central Park are still dreamy (I’m already getting moony-eyed about the second offering in July: A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But this Caesar offers so much more: great speeches, great spectacle, and ample food for thought, no matter your political persuasion. Contact us for ticket help—or hope that a pair of French angels alights on your path.
Make it a bloody brilliant night with this itinerary: