The consternation over a pussy-grabbing Caesar in a business suit and extra-long red tie was much ado about nothing.
Unless you consider William Shakespeare among the collateral damage.
The Trumpified title character spoiled what otherwise was a damn fine Public Theater performance of Julius Caesar in Central Park.
I just couldn’t wait for the three-and-twenty stab wounds to end Caesar’s life on the Senate floor. And it wasn’t because it was 90+ degrees and I didn’t have intravenous delivery for my frozen sangria.
The taint on this production was in underestimating the Trump Effect. Caesar was Trump. Not modeled after or dressed like him. He was over-the-top 45, truly naked in a gold bathtub, changing his mind on a dime (or a drachma), seeking fame and loyalty and kvetching about the media.
He infiltrated yet another oasis — a night at the theater — and he ruined it.
Trump in the flesh or envisioned in a 2,000-year-old warrior who would be king is an entity that can’t be contained. The ego is too damn big. Like blight, it insinuates, consumes and infects. So how do you empathize with, care about, despise, pity or trust a character who is a caricature, a cartoon, with no sense of humanity. This Julius Caesar couldn’t compete. His historically powerful but flawed character was rendered hollow compared to Brutus, Cassius, Marc Antony (played wonderfully by a woman), Portia, Cinna the Poet . . . the list is long.
Oskar Eustis, The Public’s artistic director and director of this production, decided as of November 9, 2016 — hours after the election — to open the Shakespeare in the Park summer season with Julius Caesar. He saw a way revisit a pivotal moment through today’s lens. We could focus on a small group of people who recognized that their republic was in danger, he said in Playbill, “from a leader who is threatening to overthrow democratic norms and establish an outright dictatorship.”
The people took matters into their own hands, assassinated Caesar, “and end[ed] up achieving the exact opposite result [of what they intended,] all of which seems to me a parable for our time,” Eustis said.
Cultural context breathes life into art and relevance into literature. So recasting Caesar to resemble a world leader makes good sense. An Orson Welles production in 1937 imagined Mussolini in that role, and in 2012 a black man donned the toga, so to speak, during Barak Obama’s administration.
But when this version of Julius Caesar opened, Trump Jr. and minions attacked The Public for provoking violence and promoting assassination. That led to two high-level Public Theater sponsors snapping their purses shut and a hateful, threatening letter-writing campaign that in some cases targeted the wrong theaters.
The Trump Effect in action.
Maybe, though, it’s not too late to save Shakespeare.
In Act 3, Scene 1, with blood on their hands, Cassius says to Brutus: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Many, many more times, me thinks.
But next time, let’s leave Trump out of the cast.