Free Shakespeare productions are a familiar, and welcome, mainstay of the summer months in New York City. Most famous, of course, is the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park. If one searches, however, one will discover a myriad of other outdoor Shakespearean traditions that are worth checking out, such as Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. This summer’s offering is Julius Caesar, the classic tale of behind-closed-doors conspiracies, political intrigues, and assassinations in Ancient Rome. Unfortunately, this particular production does not quite live up to the charm that should accompany hearing the words of the Bard from the comfort of a lawn chair in a municipal parking lot in the Lower East Side. The production starts off quite promisingly, with the players all in contemporary, business-casual dress, walking amongst and directly interacting with the audience. Each performer either carries a sign or a petition, some promoting Caesar and some condemning him. It seems from this opening that the production as a whole will play up the modern resonances of this classic text, suggesting that our own political structures often mirror those of the Roman Empire. Particularly noteworthy is a sign that one player holds that calls for “No third term” for Caesar. The expectation was for a political allegory for our own day encapsulated in a retelling of those fateful Ides of March so long ago.
From this point forward, however, when the play proper begins, there is little reference to any of these ideas again. Yes, the characters are all clothed in modern dress and regularly tote modern props, like iPhones and leather briefcases, but it is unclear in what era we find ourselves. After the opening sequence, in which the “Beware the Ides of March” line is cleverly shouted from a lamppost by someone attired as though homeless, the actors also rarely, if ever, point to their unique stage setting or utilize any of the bizarre locales it creates for them. There are high concept techniques employed – like red ribbon to symbolize blood and catchy tunes to underscore or punctuate the action - but their meanings are obscured. After the climactic murder of Caesar, many of the characters clothe themselves in red attire. Although one level of meaning for this – that they are unable to wash the blood from their hands – is clear, it also feels a tad arbitrary who wears red, when they wear it, and how much of it they don.
Mark Jeter’s performance as Brutus is the highlight of the production. The other performances are inconsistent amongst each other and even within themselves. It is frequently difficult to establish when an actor who is doubling roles has switched from one character to another, making the story vague for those who are not already familiar with it. Also, the production lacks an emotional build; at the moments of highest tension, there is nothing to glue the viewer’s eyes to the stage and at the times of relief, therefore, there is no real cathartic sigh possible.
All in all, the opportunity to hear Shakespeare’s famous text performed outweighs many of the flaws of this production. Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is a clever and community-minded way to expose people to these plays. Julius Caesar is certainly an ambitious production, even if it falls a little short. If you need a Shakespeare fix this summer, this is an easy way to get it.