By: Paulanne Simmons
Julius Caesar was a Roman politician, general, and distinguished author. Before becoming leader of the free world, Donald Trump was a television personality and businessman who declared bankruptcy at least four times. One can only conclude that Trump benefits by any comparison with the man who crossed the Rubicon. Except, of course, for the fact that Caesar was assassinated.
This event has been famously dramatized in Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy. In director Oskar Eustis’s interpretation at Central Park, Caesar, as portrayed by Gregg Henry, is remarkably Trump-like. He waves, smiles and struts in a depressingly familiar manner. For those who might somehow not get the allusion, Trump’s wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko), becomes the shapely Melania , complete with eastern European accident.
Not everyone is happy with what can only be termed a gimmick. Specifically, Trump supporters and those of delicate taste, believe it’s not such a good idea to enact the bloody murder of a sitting president onstage. But for those who appreciate Shakespeare and good drama, the production should be equally shoddy.
The main problem is that all the buffoonery takes the focus off the play’s true protagonist, Brutus (Corey Stoll), and places it on a less important character, Caesar. This also makes Brutus’s tragic miscalculation superfluous; why would anyone fear a clown such as this Caesar/Trump?
While Caesar makes his grand entrances, the other actors seem at loose ends. John Douglas Thompson, a fine Shakespearean actor, plays Cassius (he of the “lean and hungry look”) as a basically noble Roman. This is not supported by the text and renders the conflict between Cassius and Brutus unclear and uninteresting.
Nikki M. James is an effective Portia, but who cares about Brutus’s wife in a play where Caesar is the main interest?
Speaking of wives, Benko is actually one of the highlights of this production. Her Calpurnia/Melania is spunky, sexy and sympathetic. When she gets into the bathtub with Caesar in order to seduce him into staying home on the Ides of March, we see she really knows her man. She won’t let him take her hand, but she cares about him in spite of his faults.
Unlike Brutus and Cassius, neither this production nor anyone associated with it is going to start any civil wars. But at a time when healthcare hangs in the balance, and Russian interference in our elections is an established fact, we certainly have more to worry about than an ill-conceived Julius Caesar that’s good for a few laughs and not much more.
The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar runs through June 18 at the Delacorte Theater.