The Public Theater’s new Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar,” which has stirred controversy with its depiction of a Trump-like Caesar, opened Monday night to a supportive crowd who gave the show a standing ovation after the production became the focus of right-leaning criticism and funding withdrawals.
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public and also the director of the show, opened the evening with a speech that made clear the Public would stand behind the work, despite the withdrawal of funding support by Bank of America and Delta Airlines. He addressed a supportive, industry-heavy crowd that included Alec Baldwin; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director whose Broadway staging of “Jitney” had won a Tony Award the night before; actors Brian d’Arcy James (“13 Reasons Why,” “Spotlight”) and Bill Irwin (“Legion”); and “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller.
“Anybody who watches this play tonight — and I’m sorry there’s going to be a couple of spoiler alerts here — will know that neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination,” Eustis said.
“The event here is not my show. The event here is the right-wing hate machine,” he added in an interview following the opening night performance. Eustis cited prior productions of “Julius Caesar” that have overtly referred to contemporary political figures, including one in 2012 that depicted Caesar as an Obama-like leader who is assassinated. Those prior production went off without controversy, he noted.
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The audience attending the Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park that night saw a production that leaned heavily on the topical references in the first half of the show, with Julius Caesar (played by Gregg Henry) sporting blonde hair and overlong ties and mimicking Trump’s hand gestures. Caesar’s wife (played by Tina Benko) spoke with a Slovenian accent, similar to Melania Trump’s, and there were nods to pink pussy hats and Twitter. The story’s assassination scene, which is the main focus of the controversy, was bloody — but the subsequent events played like a warning, as the murder’s noblest political goals were crushed.
The crowd stood to applaud when it was all over.
Barbara Whitman, the commercial producer of the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home” (which premiered at the Public), said the controversy was an important consideration in her attendance that night. She noted all the reasons it might have been easier to skip the event, given that it was the day after the long night of the Tony Awards and the fact that the outdoor production was playing in 90-degree heat. “But after what happened, I had to come tonight and support the Public,” she said.
Rocco Landesman, the former Broadway producer and theater owner who served three years as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, also was in the crowd. “Satirical drama has been around since Aristophanes, and sometimes people get upset by it,” he said. “But these are such fraught and emotional times that everyone’s overreacting.”
Eustis said that despite the loss of funding (which he characterized as manageable), the Public, its staff and its board remained committed to the show. “There’s never been any dissension within the organization” about the production, he said.
“Julius Caesar” will close as scheduled on June 18, making way for the production of “A Midsummmer Nigjt’s Dream” that is the next offering of Free Shakespeare in the Park.