JULIUS CAESAR: Can It Be a Play for Our Times?


Would they applaud and cheer the assassination?

Well, we now know that Delta Airlines and Bank of America didn’t. But two days before they pulled out their sponsorship of the Public Theater’s JULIUS CAESAR, the Friday night crowd was eating up what director Oskar Eustis was putting before them.

And considering that theatergoers tend to be liberal Democrats, there was every possibility that seeing Donald Trump knifed to death would spur them to do both.

He isn’t listed as “Donald Trump” in “Free Shakespeare in the Park” Playbill, but Eustis certainly had Trump in mind when casting a look-alike Donald (Greg Henry) right down to the semi-orange hair and red tie in William Shakespeare’s 1599 classic.

Eustis also decided that Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko) should speak with a Melania-ish accent and at one point push away her husband’s hand. What’s more, before the show the director offered a recorded message that told us “one line has been changed.” Later we would hear it: Fifth Avenue was mentioned, referencing the place where Trump lives when he’s not in Mar-a-Lago or, to a lesser degree, the White House.

The theatergoers laughed at everything that made Trump look bad or foolish. They loved when Decius Brutus managed to talk him out of his reluctance to go to the Senate – and in no time flat. Nevertheless, would the crowd chortle when the play got around to the stabbing?

As it turned out at the June 9th performance, the audience did NOT applaud or cheer when one Roman after another shoved his knife into Caesar. The silence spoke well of the crowd, for two wrongs never make a right (which is indeed part of Shakespeare’s message).

But now what? The Roman citizens are outraged that “Trump” has been assassinated – a situation with which the vast numbers of Public Theater-goers might not identify. Yes, the Romans quickly change their minds after Brutus’ speech but then change them right back again after Marc Antony’s. Shakespeare brilliantly showed that the masses can be easily manipulated asses – and many Americans feel that those who voted for Trump certainly are – but Shakespeare’s final statement on the citizens is that they’re ready to wage war and revenge Trump.

And while some (but not remotely all) of today’s staunch Republicans might be inclined to do that, millions of Americans would not be incensed if Trump were assassinated. They might find some sympathetic feelings that they didn’t expect to experience, but they wouldn’t be fiercely outraged, either.

There are cuts in the two-hour intermissionless presentation, such as Artemidorus’ reading aloud the warning he plans to hand Caesar on that fateful March morning. And while I can’t say for sure that a certain potent line has been excised, all I can say is that I didn’t hear Third Citizen’s famous the-devil-you-know statement: “I fear there will a worse come in his place.”

Granted, there was a good deal of communal rabble-rousing, and I could have easily missed this important line in the cacophony. But did Eustis drop these words on the assumption that many in the audience couldn’t possibly imagine anyone worse than Trump on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? (Update: I just heard from the Public Theater’s publicist who informed me that the line is indeed still in the show.)

We do get the impression from the difficulties, estrangements and suicides of Brutus and Cassius that Shakespeare was saying Rome was better off when Caesar was in power. Is the United States better off with Trump in charge? Approximately half the country doesn’t think so, and the percentage is undoubtedly appreciably higher among the Shakespeare in the Park attendees who tend to be educated and liberal. So Eustis’ imposing Donald Trump into the proceedings ultimately turns out to be a sour mistake – but not necessarily for the reasons that infuriated Delta and Bank of America.

Seeing JULIUS CAESAR under any circumstances is always a worthy way to spend one’s time. For Bard beginners, it’s one of the easiest to “translate.” True, after Marc Antony’s speech and Cinna the Poet’s murder (accomplished here by police and not a group of vigilantes), the play never again reaches the level of excitement that those scenes offer. Still, it’s a marvelous play. Four hundred and eighteen years of productions speak for themselves.

Eustis also plays with gender by casting Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony. This is not simply a case of non-traditional casting, for everyone who speaks of this character uses “she” and “her” rather than “he” and “him.” Perhaps another name other than Marc might have been employed? Or given all the Trump imagery, is Marc supposed to be Kellyanne Conway?

Whether she is or isn’t, Marvel is often accomplished, although she too emotionally resorts to tears rather than subtly manipulation in one of the greatest speeches in the entire dramatic canon. However, the way she says “If it were so” (expressing the possibility that Caesar was ambitious), she does it in the evasive way that today’s politicians tend to qualify matters with that oh-so-useful “if.”

(Is there, however, a specific reason for Marvel’s Southern accent? Does this Marc Antony hail from Sicily?)

So are they all honorable actors. Henry has the Trumpian bluster and arrogance, which anticipates his fighting back as best he can in a losing cause on that fateful March day. His not immediately surrendering to his attackers is a fine and innovative staging idea.

Corey Stoll as Brutus and John Douglas Thompson are especially potent in the post-assassination scene where they get into a verbal war before reconciling. All the while they express the subtext that they wish they hadn’t started this whole damn thing. So do the other conspirators, who are dispensed with in novel fashion in a sharp piece of Eustis’ staging.

This final paragraph of mine is rated PG. There’s a scene where “Trump” is seen luxuriating in a bathtub and then emerges from it buck naked. I, seated on the audience-stage-right side of the house, could only see full dorsal nudity. Considering that Trump is alleged to have a small penis, I couldn’t help wondering if that were a casting requirement. Does anybody who was seated audience-stage-left care to tell me?

Oh, never mind.