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Denzel Washington's 'Julius Caesar' is best when there's action

But Washington fails to project Brutus' moral doubts

Published June 2005

By Lucy Komisar


Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44 St.

Director Daniel Sullivan's modern take on "Julius Caesar" has a lot to recommend it. Here is the perennial story of a victorious military leader who seems to be about to take power as a tyrant. His erstwhile colleagues in the Senate plot to kill him to preserve freedom.

A strong sense of reality is created by troops with black wool hats and fatigues, the roar of helicopter gun-ships, even metal detectors set up to check the senators who come to call on Julius Caesar. Sullivan cleverly gives a homeless man pushing a shopping cart the role of the soothsayer who elliptically importunes Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March." And a distraught woman, who could be an activist, tries to warn him of the plot.

Woman warning Caesar
Woman warning Caesar
Photos by Joan Marcus
Colm Feore is a superb Cassius, reminding one of a modern leader, especially in a driven speech protesting that Caesar is becoming a god. One can't help thinking that we are indeed in a situation where democracy is under threat. The black leather-jacketed Mark Antony (Eamonn Walker) is a great spin doctor as he manipulates the mob, feeding it anguish and passion in a quietly voiced and brilliantly delivered funeral speech aimed at getting them to turn against Caesar's killers.

Denzel Washington as Brutus
Denzel Washington as Brutus
Unfortunately, the play hangs on the performance of Brutus, and film actor Denzel Washington does not project the subtle conflict inside that Roman. He fails to express the inner doubts and struggle which make Brutus the moral superior of those around him. His portrayal lacks gravitas. When Portia (finely acted by Jessica Hecht) accuses him with passion in her voice, he responds dryly, without emotion. (And why is the conservative Brutus wearing one gold earring?)

Perhaps Sullivan also went too far by putting Caesar (William Sadler) on the massage table, especially as his carelessly flung towel reveals the nudity beneath it. He doesn't have the forcefulness a dictator needs to get to power. His death scene is near parody, as you never feel that someone regal has been killed. Tamara Tunie is strong as Caesar's wife, Calpurnia. But Casca (Jack Willis) speaks with a distracting camp inflection!

William Sadler as Ceasar
William Sadler as Ceasar
Curiously, the play is best when a few of the principals are offstage. There's a thrill in seeing leather-jacketed thugs pulling down a sheet with Caesar's picture on it. Or in watching machine-gun-totting red-bereted troops racing through the rubble of Rome. (The set is by Ralph Funicello.) And in hearing police sirens going off as Mark Antony cries, "Let slip the dogs of war!"

Perhaps, as in Denzel Washington films, the play improves when it turns to action.

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