Hang on to your comb-over because the theatrical Trump storm is now approaching gale force.
Hartford Stage’s recent revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House dressed that play’s pathetic bully character in a bright yellow wig. Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall imagined President Trump’s presiding over a near-term dystopia of immigrant concentration camps. Opening soon is a shrewdly timed adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984; Michael Moore arrives later this summer blowing Broadway-size spitballs at the White House.
Must I also mention Faust 3: The Turd Coming, or The Fart of the Deal, a satire of Trump performed by a company of clowns? I must.
But the loudest alarm in this cacophony of cautionary Trump tales is the one now sounding from the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where the Public Theater’s wild production of Julius Caesar has been in previews since May 23. (It opens officially on Monday.) Its depiction of a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife, takes onstage Trump-trolling to a startling new level.
Naturally, some right-wing commenters are revving up their outrage over what they assume is an incitement to violence against the president. A recent Breitbart article about the show was headlined “‘Trump’ Stabbed to Death in Central Park Performance of Julius Caesar.” Uh, spoiler alert?
Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination. Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions.
The Delacorte production, vividly staged by the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, bears the same message and, for good measure, comes with careful usage instructions. “Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods,” Eustis recently explained in a statement, “pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.”
Still, when the famous funeral scene arrives, and Marc Antony exposes not just Caesar’s sliced-up garment, as Shakespeare indicates, but also his bare, wound-ripped flesh, even theatregoers who loathe Trump may begin to wonder whether the production has a Kathy Griffin problem on its hands. Has it gone too far?
To answer that, you first have to consider where it started. Eustis has said he decided to schedule Julius Caesar as the first of this summer’s Delacorte productions on election night in November. It was already his favourite of the Shakespeare tragedies, and it did not take much of a leap to envision the title role as a Trump precursor. The character as written is vain, self-serving and demagogic, cynically manipulating the whiplash passions of his followers.
Nor would any textual emendation be required to make the point. The serendipity of English renders much of the original language strangely contemporary. Though Elizabethans would have understood Caesar to be referring to a mob, how can we not imagine a media briefing when he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” And when an underling informs Brutus of an important communiqué by saying “I found this posted,” why should we be surprised when he points to something on his smartphone?
Indeed, Eustis has added just three words to the text, which is otherwise reduced by about a quarter. The line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less” has been updated by the insertion of the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma. The audience roars.
The rest has been accomplished visually. David Rockwell’s set design combines timeless imperial imagery (giant gearlike constructions) with pointed American allusions. (A blowup of the preamble to the Constitution is prominently displayed.) Contemporary costuming by Paul Tazewell, including dark suits and trench coats, federal lapel pins, Anonymous masksand pussy hats, conjures today’s factional strife at a glance. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, wears a series of gorgeously cut outfits, appropriately in blush.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service