Et Tu, Orange Brute: Is Donald Trump “Julius Caesar”?

Julius Caesar
Nikki M.James, Corey Stoll in Julius Caesar. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, it’s Lord Darlington who says:

I can resist everything except temptation.

This week, it could have been Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, uttering that witty line about his direction of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. For Eustis has not resisted temptation in mounting a modern-day update of the tragedy in which the title character is a Donald J. Trump lookalike.

So out comes Gregg Henry in a blue suit with a red tie that costumer Paul Tazewell has fall below the beltline. Henry sports the carefully coiffed Trump do (though it’s not bright orange) and he mimics the man’s familiar gestures. (That the actor also resembles 1940s Kirk Douglas is worth remarking.)

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Yes, the Trump look gets the laugh that Eustis is after, just as Tina Benko, as Calpurnia, gets a laugh when she speaks with a (Slovenian?) accent that instantly reminds us of Melania Trump. (For Benko’s few scenes, Tazewell opts for some classic Ralph Lauren stylings.)

Granted, these notions are effectively amusing. But almost from beginning to end they represent a surprising misreading of the work; in a program note, Eustis likens Shakespeare’s concerns about the fragility of democracy to current events in the US. Of democracy in jeopardy, Eustis’ heart is in the right place, but his acumen doesn’t seem to be. His suggestion that President Trump is a modern equivalent of the title character fundamentally misleads: Julius Caesar was a renowned warrior, whereas we know Trump never served a day in the armed forces, though he does have a Purple Heart.

Since Eustis clearly intends to satirize, not lionize, Trump, one problem he creates is that when Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel) — with whom spectators are expected to side — declares Julius Caesar the noblest Roman of them all, there’s a yuge disconnect. Eustis surely doesn’t want us to consider Trump the noblest American of them all, no matter how much the man might (over-) rate himself.

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What about Romans, like Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson), who plot the demise of Caesar from the opening scenes? These conspirators — so deeply and sincerely concerned about Caesar’s potentially deleterious effects on democracy — are hardly comparable to their 2017 Congressional counterparts, who, as far as we can tell, are hardly scheming to rid America of Trump.

Then there’s the sequence where, having heard the “beware the Ides of March” warning, Calpurnia attempts to talk her husband out of going to the Capitol that fateful day. Eustis stages this with the marrieds naked in a tub. Anyone following the news accounts of Trump’s trip to Europe, or items in gossip columns, would know that the Trumps are unlikely to be caught together in flagrante delicto.

Eustis’ casting also raises some questions. In writing the scenes in which Calpurnia and Portia (Nikki M. James) appear, Shakespeare was careful about particularizing the place of women in Roman society as irrevocably inferior to men. For example, Portia attempts to wrest Brutus’ secrets from him, but he deems her not yet an equal confidant. Similar, it is only momentary that Caesar accedes to Calpurnia about remaining home throughout the Ides. So why does Eustis have several women play male roles — Isabel Arraiza, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Marjan Neshat, among them? Whether they’re women playing men or women isn’t always clear, but if they’re women playing women, they’re undermining Shakespeare’s gender attitudes. It’s jarring to witness Calpurnia and Portia consigned to home-and-hearth status — and then to see it overturned in succeeding scenes.

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The usually superb Marvel as Marc Antony? Here, Eustis is quite clear: this Marc Antony is a woman. Putting aside that a woman in Rome wouldn’t have had a military ranking, given that President Trump has appointed no women to similar posts, the casting remains something of a point, or a stunt. Would it have been less so had Marvel played Marc Antony as a man? Maybe. Speaking in a Southern spin, she delivers the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech and cries through much of it — and its immediate aftermath. Why so weepy? Because she’s a woman?

While so much of this whole undertaking is off-kilter, it is important to mention that there are well-done segments. The best is the late scene in which Stoll’s Brutus and Thompson’s Cassius, best friends forever, almost come to blows but retreat and reconcile. Not only are they both forceful here, but throughout they give the most professional performances — not too surprising, since they stood out in last year’s Troilus and Cressida, directed by Dan Sullivan. Eustis is wise to have them back.

Others performing well: Teagle F. Bougere as Casca, Edward James Hyland as Cicero, Motell Foster as Trebonius and Yusef Bulos as Cinna the poet. Acknowledgment must also go to supernumeraries that Eustis has commandeered for fickle, noisy Roman crowds. These unbilled participants consistently go for broke. Possibly the best supporting performance is from set designer David Rockwell, who provides walls of graffiti — some with excerpts from the US Constitution.

In a voiceover at the top of the performance, Eustis welcomes us, then confides that only one line has been added to this intermissionless Julius Caesar. He’s right when he says that we will recognize it. And it gets a laugh — a cheap one, but a laugh all the same. Where Eustis is off the mark, however, is when he insists that the rest of the play is all Shakespeare. No, this Julius Caesar is not all Shakespeare. Indeed, too much of it is not.