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So I went to see a play the other night. I've written many times about the process of acquiring free tickets to the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions, but this season's Julius Caesar has taken on a new significance in the past few days, and I should say things about the play itself.

Make no mistake. The title character of the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar in Central Park is most definitely supposed to remind us of the current resident of the White House. But even before Caesar appears on stage, everything feels all too real. The stage is decked out in the blue and green painted plywood construction barriers, strewn with posters and graffiti -- some Caesar campaign posters with the slogan "Your Eye on Rome," some crude spray-painted markings of a resistance, and the ubiquitous "POST NO BILLS" signage. Tourists are on stage taking pictures and when Flavius and Marullus arrive to disperse the crowd -- like a couple of liberal elites confronting people about to attend a Tr--p rally -- the Second Commoner yells, in dulcet dudebro tones, "Indeed, sir, we make holiday to see CAESARRRRR..." (*hand-horns and pelvic thrusting*) "...and to rejoice in his triumph!" Shouting and aggressive pushing ensue, and the scene only lacks an image of a cartoon frog to look like footage from today's news.


What you'd see upon entering the theater. Note the Constitution banners upstage;
behind the plywood walls looks like the set of a West Wing photoshoot.


This all happens before the welcome-and-put-your-phones-away announcement, which happens as Caesar enters from the back of the stage, hands raised like a prize fighter, sporting a Red Power Tie. And here is where one should note the first of a few definite differences between this Caesar and our own. In addition to a much richer vocabulary and a more visibly affectionate relationship with his wife, Caesar has accomplished things. He's led armies. He's won wars. Whatever you feel about Caesar's politics, there is no denying that he is a Great Man (great, in this case, not necessarily meaning "good"). He's the real deal, not just some used car salesman who's playing a reality television parody of a president. He is not "new to this," as Speaker Ryan might say.



The welcome announcement is delivered in voice-over by Caesar himself (played by Gregg Henry, who has already played a version of Tr--p on Scandal). And in case we've forgotten that this is a proxy for the 45th President, his wife Calpurnia replies to his hail with a thick Slavic accent and he proceeds to (I kid you not) place an imperious hand on her nether regions. Yeah. They went there.


Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.


There are several more pointed parallels. Casca's line, "if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less," is tweaked to "if Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue, they would have done no less." Just before the fateful assassination, Caesar is tweeting from his bathtub and later accentuates his speech to the senate with a very familiar hand gesture. And in the play's second half, Cassius runs on stage wearing a pink "pussy" hat.


What mean you, Caesar? think you to walk forth?
You shall not stir out of your house to-day.



Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.


So yeah, the play might be Julius Caesar, but we're definitely supposed to be reminded of Tr--p (which I suspect many people would be even without the modern setting and visual cues). And of course the centerpiece of the play is the brutal and bloody assassination of Caesar at the hands of several senators. At this moment in the play -- at least at the performance I attended -- most of the audience was appropriately stunned (though one person in the front row did stand up and cheer, but sat down as soon as he realized no one else was feeling the wahoo). It is not played for laughs. It is not played for cheers. It is violent and awful, and it should be.

This happens in Act 3, scene i -- at roughly the halfway point of the play. And this is an important thing to remember. The play is called Julius Caesar, but it is not actually *about* Julius Caesar. The play is *about* an assassination plot, and the consequences. It's about a small group of idealistic people, concerned about what will happen to their democracy when a demagogue ascends to power and challenges the norms they hold dear. However, far from saving their democracy, their actions ensure the end of it. This isn't just a story; this is a historical event that closed the curtain on democracy in Rome, a democracy the likes of which would not appear again in Western civilization until nearly 2000 years later, when some British colonists decided to tell the king where he could stick his tea tax.


Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
(Cool motive, still murder.)



You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason.


Most people have been exposed to this play in some form -- probably required to read it -- by the age of fifteen or so. My own first reading was in 7th grade, for Dr. Fricks's English class. And maybe it's been a while for some folks. But even a surface reading should clue someone in to the play's ultimate point, which is that assassination of a political leader is a GALACTICALLY STUPID IDEA. The play's full title specifically names it a TRAGEDY. Brutus, Cassius and the other assassins make a CATASTROPHIC choice and it costs them, quite literally, EVERYTHING -- up to and including the very democracy they were trying to save. After Caesar's murder and Marc Antony's uncanny turning of the public's opinion, martial law rules the streets, innocent people are beaten to death, 100 senators are executed (there are some REALLY uncomfortable scenes with people being executed by a firing squad). It is a complete disaster, and anyone who thinks this play advocates killing a president is out of their minds. (It is also worth noting that there was another modern-day production of this same play in 2012, where Caesar was an inspiring black president -- murdered just as every Caesar is in Act 3, scene i -- with no public outrage whatsoever.)


Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.


I'm so proud I got to see this production, particularly after all the hoopla and the ensuing outpouring of support from the arts community. Some of my favorite things that I haven't yet mentioned:

- Brutus scrolling through his cellphone reading shitposts about himself.
- ALL the use of modern technology, including Octavius taking a pic of Brutus's dead body with his cellphone.
- Nikki James (Portia), who nearly steals the play in just two scenes.
- Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Antony in a pantsuit), who owns every moment she is on stage. Her grief over Caesar's death and (of course) the funeral speech is a sight to behold. She also has the most amazing cornpone accent.
- For all that this is a "dudes" play, there are some great women in this production;
not just Portia and Antony, but also the Soothsayer (with a rough facsimile of a Guy Fawkes mask) and several of the senators.
- The absolute horror show that is the post-Caesar Rome, starting with the tearing down of the Constitution banners and other specifically American democratic iconography. I can't emphasize enough how horrifying it was to watch people line up in the center of the stage, between the columns of what used to to be the "Capitol," to be shot to death by the police.
- Specific references aside, there's a TON of this text that feels eerily familiar and director Oskar Eustis has pruned the text to emphasize it and draw obvious parallels, such as Caesar refusing to use "sickness" as an excuse for not going to the senate, because he thinks it makes him look weak.

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