Colorado Shakes comes to bury Caesar ... not Trump

by John Moore | Jul 06, 2017

Colorado Shakespeare Festival Anthony Powell


Colorado Shakespeare Festival opens a Julius Caesar that director Anthony Powell hopes will speak for itself

By Avery Anderson
For the DCPA NewsCenter

When Julius Caesar is assassinated in Shakespeare’s famous play of the same name, it sends shock waves through the audience. But when a Caesar who uncannily resembled President Donald Trump was assassinated in a recent New York production of the play, it sent shock waves through the entire country.

Julius Caesar has been a hot topic since the Public Theatre played up similarities between the title character and Donald Trump. The murder of a Caesar who was played by a white actor wearing a business suit and a long, red tie, struck some as too close to home. Sponsors Delta and Bank of America pulled their support of the production. After word of the controversy quickly spread, pro-Trump protesters stormed the stage and halted a performance, to the derision of the crowd.

Robert SicularDelta said the production did not reflect its values and that the "artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste." Bank of America felt the production "intended to provoke or offend."

The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund was quick to condemn Delta and Bank of America for their decision.

“Good taste is a matter of opinion, and an ‘intention to provoke’ may be an integral part of a play's mission,” President John Weidman and Executive Director Ralph Sevush said in a combined statement. “Delta doesn't appear to have had a problem with the ‘values’ or ‘taste’ of such depictions before.”

In 2012, The Guthrie Theater’s production portrayed Caesar as then-President Obama. Delta sponsored that production in Minneapolis, but did not pull its support.

Now, amid the still-swirling discourse about the rights and responsibilities of both artists and sponsors, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is set to open its own take on Julius Caesar on Saturday at the Mary Rippon outdoor amphitheatre in Boulder. And the company is already receiving calls from curious patrons wanting to know just how political this staging might be.

All over the country, from New York to Oklahoma to Oregon, theaters are staging Julius Caesar this year, the New York Times opined, “as a way to chew over politics, power, democracy and authoritarianism at a moment when a populist leader with a fondness for executive power has moved into the White House.”

Actress explores Hamlet's feminine side for Colorado Shakes

Shakespeare’s play has always been about far more than the death of Julius Caesar, who is killed in the middle of the play — bloodily — by Brutus and his band of co-conspirators. In this familiar world, Caesar is an increasingly powerful leader who is killed in the name of saving the republic. But be careful what you wish for, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt told the Times, noting the chaos and bloodshed the assassination unleashes. “The very thing that you think you’re doing to protect the republic can lead to the end of the republic,” Greenblatt said.

The Public’s Oskar Eustis, one of the most influential directors in the American theatre, said he decided immediately after the election that his title character would be a provocative stand-in for President Trump. “When we hold the mirror up to nature,” Eustis said in his opening-night speech, “often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. That’s our job.”

Public Theatre Julius CaesarIn his program notes, Eustis added, “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.”

Shana Cooper, who is directing Julius Caesar for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, believes that although there is an assassination scene in Julius Caesar, the play is not encouraging the death of the president or anyone else.

“Julius Caesar in no way condones assassination,” Cooper wrote in a letter to audiences. “In fact, it is actually a story about the relentless cycle of violence that is set in motion by that singular act. It is a story about a group of citizens who allow their civic love to be contorted by the conclusion that the only way to oppose a world of tyranny is with the world’s weapons. And that choice to continue the cycle of violence costs them everything: family, friends, and the very republic they sought to protect.”

(Pictured above right: The Public Theatre's staging of a Trump-like 'Julius Caesar.' Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Why Julius Caesar speaks to politics today. With or without Trump.

The Public Theatre received threats because of the controversy. The New York Classical Theatre, Shakespeare and Company, and Shakespeare Theatre Company have as well - even though none of them are producing Julius Caesar this year.

Colorado Shakespeare Festival Director Anthony Powell hopes the controversy ends up being much ado about nothing in Boulder. He says his production will be staged as written, set in Shakespeare's time.

“It is super radical that we are setting it in Ancient Rome,” Powell joked. “It seems like that was the right decision.”

Powell has been a longtime director for the DCPA Theatre Company (most recently Lord of the Flies and All the Way), but Julius Caesar is his first production with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. He said the New York controversy is in no way impacting what he is doing in Boulder. In fact, “I wish people would stop talking about it,” he said, though he expects the subject to be a popular topic in post-show talkbacks.

(Story continues below the photo.)



Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Robert Sicular, who is playing Julius Caesar in Powell's production, said the controversy has not even come up for discussion in rehearsals.

“We are just doing the show and trying to make it work, tell the story, have the characters believable and speak the language well,” Sicular said. “This is probably my 85th to 90th Shakespeare play, and I have found that the more outlandish the concept, the less accessible the production.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Sicular is well-known to DCPA Theatre Company audiences, having performed in 11 plays since 1994, most recently Heartbreak House, The Liar and The Taming of the Shrew.

“I understand how theatre can be used for political aims,” Sicular said. “But I think it is actually more powerful when the play can speak for itself.”

Powell said Shakespeare can be presented  in any form as long as the creative team and actors do their part.

“I don’t think Shakespeare needs to be done in tights or togas,” Powell said. “But it makes a strong statement about how timeless Shakespeare’s themes are. You can set it in Rome; you can set it on the moon. It doesn’t matter. As long as we do our job right, the audience will make their own connections between then and now.”


Julius Caesar: Ticket information

• Performance July 8 through Aug. 12
• Performance dates and times vary
• Mary Rippon Outdoor Amphitheatre
• Tickets $20-$70
• Call 303-492-8008 or go to cupresents.org


About the author
Avery-Anderson Avery Anderson is interning with the DCPA NewsCenter for the summer. He is the General Manager and producer of Met TV at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He was won two Heartland Student Emmy Awards for his work on The Met Report. He has a passion for local arts and culture and enjoys covering theatres across the Denver area and the state. Follow him on Twitter and @a_anderson64.

1 comment

Leave a comment
  1. Kit Baker | Jul 13, 2017

    The tipping point for me to decide to hit the road and attend the Julius Caesar opening night was the Public Theatre brouhaha.  I've seen a few theatre productions make front page news over the years, but nothing like this. When was the last time a theatre production provoked such an impassioned national conversation? Even Hamilton hasn't reached that level of political buzz.

    I arrived eager to see what this production would contribute to that conversation.  I had no problem at all with the toga approach, as long as it resonated with this political crisis we feel and see roiling all around us.  Specifically, I was hoping the production might illuminate what Shakespeare could show us about the way rhetoric can be used as a weapon of war.

    In short, I was hoping for a different production.

    Hardly the first time that has happened - and normally that wouldn't justify me writing this kind of comment. But the reaction of the director and lead actor quoted here is so diametrically opposed to my hopes and expectations that I feel compelled to present an opposing view.

    What's should the response be to a director making the public statement "I wish people would stop talking about it"?  What does that say about the kind of audience engagement being envisaged for this production?

    With 21st century audiences increasingly expecting to be participants rather than passive viewers - including me - I'd go in the opposite direction and say "isn't it interesting that so many people are talking about it?"

    A couple of years ago I went to a talk at the Philadelphia Fringe by director and designer Romeo Castellucci, whose adaptation of Julius Caesar was presented in New York a month before the election (and developed as Berlusconi rose to power in Castellucci's native Italy). It was performed in togas, but I strongly suspect it would fall into Robert Sicular's "outlandish" category. I didn't see it, but the eight Castellucci performances I have been lucky enough to see count among the best things I've ever experienced, by a long shot. This Julius Caesar reviewer, the playwright Paul David Young, seems to be of a similar mind: https://hyperallergic.com/328679/downtown-tyrant-romeo-castelluccis-julius-caesar-new-york/.

    At the talk in Philadelphia, Castellucci was asked what meaning we should take away from the production we were seeing ("The Four Seasons Restaurant"). He took our breath away by saying that he couldn't tell us. Rather the audience should be encouraged to read whatever they wished into the production - and in fact this was the most important thing for him, that the true meaning of what we experienced should reside in the imaginations of the audience.

    I was very glad to see the sold out opening night in Boulder, and am delighted to see that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is prospering. But I wish my imagination had been more engaged, and given more space.  Call me a party pooper, but my takeaway is that I regret all the more that I missed that Julius Caesar at Federal Hall in New York, and the chance to experience what the reviewer did - nine long months before the Public's production opened a few miles uptown:

    "Castellucci has presented this performance in various iterations since 1997. Why here? Why now? A great deal of American history occurred at this site, including the oath of office of George Washington as the first president and the first meetings of Congress under both the Articles of Confederacy in the 1780s and the U.S. Constitution in the 1790s...

    To perform his Caesar here implicates this history and ties it to the political ambiguity of the play. Did self-interested conspirators unjustly murder Caesar? Or did Brutus and his league extinguish a nascent tyrant? As thuggish presidential candidate Trump incites his followers to political violence and praises dictators Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Benito Mussolini, and Kim Jong-Un, Castellucci’s Caesar does well to remind us of the threat of tyranny."

    Leave a comment

    POPULAR POSTS
     
    ABOUT THE EDITOR
    John Moore
    John Moore
    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

    DCPA is the nation’s largest not-for-profit theatre organization dedicated to creating unforgettable shared experiences through beloved Broadway musicals, world-class plays, educational programs and inspired events. We think of theatre as a spark of life — a special occasion that’s exciting, powerful and fun. Join us today and we promise an experience you won't soon forget.