With all due respect to the Public Theater and its artistic director Oskar Eustis, was it really appropriate to turn the title character of Shakespeare’s action-packed political thriller “Julius Caesar” into a caricature of Donald Trump?
This heavy-handed, uncomfortable and unnecessary stroke of provocation on the part of Eustis (who rarely directs shows himself) turns what might have otherwise been a decent Shakespeare in the Park production into a jumbled mess. The uneasy mixture of parody and earnest tragedy creates an easy target for condemnation at a time when arts funding is already under siege.
With a design scheme that suggests modern-day Washington, D.C. — with its monuments, protesters and armored security forces — instead of ancient Rome, this Caesar (portrayed with broadness and bravado by Gregg Henry) incorporates Trump’s best-known mannerisms. Calpurnia (Tina Benko), Caesar’s wife, has a Slavic accent, not unlike Melania. A line of dialogue has even been edited to reflect a notorious comment from the campaign trail (“If Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue, they would have done no less”).
If Eustis did not foresee that the Trump concept would be extremely problematic (especially after the photos of Kathy Griffin with Trump’s severed head met with mass denunciation), then his thinking was as shortsighted as Brutus in the play. On the eve of opening night, Delta Air Lines pulled sponsorship of the Public Theater and Bank of America withdrew its funding for the production.
Notwithstanding, the production contains great performances from Corey Stoll (as a smooth-looking, cerebral Brutus) and John Douglas Thompson (as a tired, overanxious Cassius). Elizabeth Marvel (as Caesar’s top lieutenant Anthony) fares less well, with a wobbly Southern accent and an over-the-top take on the famous funeral oration.
Any worthwhile production of “Julius Caesar” will prompt an audience to ponder its own political realities, whether it’s presented in modern dress or togas. Eustis should have trusted that his audience could draw its own parallels.
IF YOU GO: “Julius Caesar” plays at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park through Sunday. For info on obtaining free tickets, visit publictheater.org.