|Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, and Elizabeth Marvel. Photo: Joan Marcus|
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Oscar Eustis
Delacorte Theatre (Central Park)
Through June 18
By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
For this production, "What's All the Controversy About?" might be a better opener. Shakespeare in the park's Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry) looks and sounds like President Donald Trump, whose glamorous wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko), has a Yugoslavian-sounding accent, always walks a few steps behind him and looks wounded when he refuses to take her hand. While the trend in theater always seems to be to throw in references to current political culture, this production, directed by the Public Theater's Artistic Director Oscar Eustis, may have gone too far.
Do audiences really want to see the American president, for all intents and purposes, stabbed to death on the Senate floor? Well, thanks to Henry's impersonation with Costume Design by Paul Tazewell and Hair, Wig and Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas, that's sure what it looks like.
While hard-core liberals make up most of the decision makers in New York theater as well as those who present the works on stage, they often make the mistake of forgetting that not everyone in America (and therefore in the audience) shares the same political bent. In a recent conversation with a theater professional in New York who was full of anxiety about what a Trump presidency might mean for her young daughter and who was incredulous that anyone might support his policies, I reminded her that she only thinks everyone agrees with her because she lives in New York City (where most people do). Visit any other part of the country, particularly non-urban areas in the South, Midwest and West, however, and you will meet a lot of people (so many of them that they elected Trump over liberal icon Hillary Clinton) who see the world from a completely opposite perspective: they can't believe there is anyone who didn't vote for Trump and who wanted four more years of the policies championed by President Barack Obama.
What this Central Park production of Julius Caesar brings to light is that thousands of people filling theater seats on Broadway and off come from those other areas (as well as from other countries where seeing a Broadway play is part of taking in the American experience). Thousands of them are conservatives and Christians who love theater -- welcome to the many readers of Reflections in the Light -- and they all aren't on board with a Donald-Trump-bashing agenda. So seeing the president, a.k.a. Julius Caesar, violently murdered by Senators and former supporters who think he is out of control and grabbing too much power didn't exactly go over well with everyone (and personally, I didn't need to see him emerge naked from a bath tub either.) At the end of the murder scene, there wasn't applause or an outburst of enthusiasm which might have been expected -- this is New York, after all.
What did happen, was that advertisers heard from unhappy audience members and outraged conservative media representatives and pulled their advertising for the production. Bank of America (an 11-year sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park who has made the experience free for one million people ) and Delta Airlines announced they were withdrawing support from the production. Liberals, in turn, have called for boycotts of the two companies to protest censorship. The National Endowment for the Arts, under threat of cuts or de-funding by the Trump administration, was quick to issue a statement saying it had not supported this production.
So with all of that out of the way, what did I think of the play? I thought the depiction of Caesar as Trump was unnecessary. Audiences are intelligent and might have drawn their own conclusions, but this forced comparison seems a bit of a stretch and solely for the purpose of enjoying that murder scene. Another creative choice up in Connecticut was much more savvy. Hartford Stage Artistic Director Dark Tresnjak put a blond wig on his lead actor in a just-closed production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House and suddenly an otherwise boring script that normally wouldn't be a good candidate for revival came to life. The portrayal of Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) wasn't an impersonation of Trump, or even a parody. It was a thought suggestion that worked brilliantly. His lines of dialogue, written in 1920, sounded like something the president might say today. In fact there were times you could swear he did say something just like that about running for political office or about being ruthless in business. It gave the character and the play nuance whereas the Trump impersonation in Julius Caesar doesn't add depth.
Read Eustis's program notes here. Read the review of the Hartford production of Heartbreak house here.
Here is the official response from the Public Theater:
"The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park."
Don't hate me, though. I didn't hate this production outright. Julius Caesar is not one of Shakespeare's most-produced plays, so I was excited to see it, especially in the park which offers a unique outdoor setting under the stars. The Trump depiction distracted me from what otherwise was theater worth watching. John Douglas Thompson (Caius Cassius) is particularly good and I would have like to be able to concentrate on all of the performances and the play itself.
Highlights of the park production are the inclusion of "audience members" in crowd scenes. They are very nicely choreographed in the house (we wonder at first if the audience members around us are getting out of control with all of their standing and chanting) as well as on the stage with a design (by David Rockwell) incorporating a backdrop of the US constitution. That in itself, along with several "Resist" banners, were all the reminder necessary for the audience to project modern times into the politics of ancient Rome.
Marc Anthony (Elizabeth Marvel) gets a seamless gender change and allows a woman to take some prominence in a play that is testosterone-heavy (made more so by Melania -- I mean Calpurnia's -- submissive and hungry-to-be-noticed-by-her-husband portrayal). The play is fast-paced for a two-hour run, but suffers a loss of energy after the murder scene (which offers proof that the emphasis seems to have been on the Trump impersonation and this scene instead of the politics still playing out on stage).
Julius Caesar runs in the park through June 18. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (outdoors). Tickets are free: publictheater.org.
Additional credits: Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Jessica Paz, Original Music and Soundscapes by Bray Poor.
Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Edward James Hyland (Lepidus, Popilius); Nikki M. James (Portia); Christopher Livingston (Titinis, Cinna); Elizabeth Marvel (Antony); Chris Myers (Flavius, Messala, Ligarius); Marjan Neshat (Metullus Cimber); Corey Stoll (Marcus Brutus); and Natalie Woolams-Torres (Marullus). The non-equity company includes Isabel Arraiza (Publius Clitus); Erick Betancourt; Mayaa Boateng (Soothsayer); Motell Foster (Trebonius); Dash King; Tyler La Marr (Lucillius); Gideon McCarty; Nick Selting (Lucius, Strato); Alexander Shaw (Octavius’ Servant); Michael Thatcher (Cobbler); and Justin Walker White (Pindarus)
-- Theater warns: violence, nudity, live gunshot sounds, strobe, herbal cigarettes, haze, and fog.
Next up for Shakespeare in the Park: A Midsummer Night's Dream in July directed by Lear deBessonet and starring: Phylicia Rashad, Annaleigh Ashford, De’Adre Aziza, Kyle Beltran, Danny Burstein, Shalita Grant, Austin Durant, Alex Hernandez, Jeff Hiller, Robert Joy, David Manis, Patrena Murray, Kristine Nielsen, and Joe Tapper.