Sunday, April 03, 2005

Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar: A Review from Newsday

NEW YORK -- "Brutus is an honorable man," says Mark Antony during one of the more famous speeches that pepper William Shakespeare's blood-soaked "Julius Caesar," now being revived on Broadway. Yet watching Denzel Washington's curiously detached performance as Brutus (one of the co-conspirators who kill the fabled Roman emperor), enigma is more the word that comes to mind.

Washington, the reason this revival was mounted in the first place, has a magnetic, forceful screen persona suggesting strength and warmth at the same time. Yet on stage, at least in this aggressive, modern-dress production directed by Daniel Sullivan, the actor comes across as subdued. His voice, while strong, lacks variety, producing a monotone at odds with the other, more vocally acrobatic actors on stage. Brutus is a man in the middle _ torn between his loyalty to Caesar and his devotion to Rome. The man's searing internal conflict should find its way to the surface. Here it produces a slightly furrowed brow and a tentative portrait.

Sullivan's tough-minded production is agreeably straightforward, despite his placing the play within an odd time frame. A decaying ancient Rome is atmospherically realized in designer Ralph Funicello's crumbling set, but it's also a world of cell phones, metal detectors, briefcases and machine guns. These conspirators are white-collar terrorists, all dressed in business attire. Washington, a sparkling stud in his left ear, makes a stylish entrance in a gray suit offset by a crisp blue shirt.

Best of the lot is Colm Feore, a fiercely manipulative Cassius who woos Brutus with the ardor of a true believer. Among the others, Jack Willis, as a burly, almost comic Casca, and Patrick Page as a particularly unctuous Decius Brutus, stand out. As the title character, William Sadler is suitably hearty and personable, yet drawn with enough shading to make the man's egocentricity show through.

The dramatic high point of any "Julius Caesar" should be Mark Antony's famous eulogy for Caesar, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen," a not-so-subtle call-to-arms that will make the rabble rise up against the men who killed Caesar. Sullivan stages it dramatically, with the actors spilling into the theater's aisles and standing in the boxes above the stage. Eamonn Walker's Antony is a striking, brooding presence who can command an audience.

Women in "Julius Caesar" are generally forgotten creatures and that's the case here, although Jessica Hecht as Brutus' helpmate and Tamara Tunie as Caesar's wife do some high-velocity emoting.

"Julius Caesar" is not the most subtle of Shakespeare's plays, particularly as it drives toward a violent conclusion in a series of battle scenes. At the Belasco Theatre, they consist of actors wearing camouflage fatigues and running back and forth across the stage while constant explosions and gunfire pierce the air. This could be one of the noisiest productions of "Julius Caesar" on record. Washington handles these final moments well. He has an athletic grace and precision when it comes to the character's determination to fight the good fight to the end. And there is a nobility in the death of Brutus. Yet it's the actor's interpretation of the man's life that is the puzzlement. In the end, Washington's Brutus remains opaque, more of a question mark than a real person.

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