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Et Tu, Louisville Dramatists? The Trickle Down Of 'Caesar' And Trump

Shakespearean Trump
ADDS THE NAMES OF THE CHARACTERS PORTRAYED ON STAGE - In this May 21, 2017 photo provided by The Public Theater, Tina Benko, left, portrays Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry, center left, portrays President Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar during a dress rehearsal of The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in New York. Rounding out the cast on stage is Teagle F. Bougere as Casca, and Elizabeth Marvel, right, as Marc Anthony. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via AP)

Productions of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” have always been pretty bloody. In most scripts, leading up to the assassination of the title character, the stage directions literally read: CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR.

Beyond the gore, it’s typically interpreted as a politically fraught cautionary tale about how violent decisions made to protect a republic can actually lead to its end.

So, when New York City’s Public Theater staged an interpretation of the play recently with an unmistakably Trump-like Caesar, national uproar ensued.

Behind the discussion about political speech is one about the resources that support speech — from government, corporations, and private entities and individuals. Here in Louisville, most of the major performing arts organizations are supported, in some part, by public entities.

The question for them, then, is whether the nation’s collective outrage about a modern-day “Caesar” could tamp down speech or discourage artistic choices that verge on the political.

Art As A Reflection Of Current Times

“We have often used classical plays here as a vehicle to reflect our current times, and I’m not ashamed to say that,” says Walden Theatre artistic director Charlie Sexton. “Art has got to be a reflection of what the current times are.”

He continues: “And we have done it with Shakespeare.”

Sexton directed a production of “Measure for Measure” in 2006, during the height of the Iraq War. One of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed “problem plays,” it dances around the topics of authoritarianism, mercy and what laws or principles are worth enforcing — and at what cost.

“I set the play in a very authoritarian time period in the 1930s, and I wanted it to be a reflection of the current situation,” Sexton says. “And I’m not trying to use a sledgehammer to get that point across, but I think with the right kind of director’s notes in the program and the skillful execution of the actors, a person can come away from a classical play like this and think that history repeats itself.”

Sexton says he doesn’t worry too much about funding being pulled from from his programs; the organization is not currently funded through any NEA grants and, while they are applying for one for 2018, it would most likely be towards a play to prompt discussion with their school groups about autism.

But, Sexton says, in working with Walden Theatre, which is now part of the Commonwealth Theatre Center, there’s a bit of a “balance beam” he has to walk since the organization works with both adult actors and students.

For example, when reviewing classics with the students — “from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Ibsen to Chekhov to Shaw” — he makes sure to provide them with ample historical background.

“Your discussions are inevitably going to segue into what was going on at the time and political discussion,” he says. “But at that point, you need to let them derive their own interpretations.”

Context Is Key

But according to Kentucky Shakespeare producing artistic director Matt Wallace, sometimes a director has to be cognizant that not all audience members will have that background when watching a production.

Or, in the case of Kentucky Shakespeare’s park series, people may wander into the show partway through.

“Particularly being in an open-air setting, where anyone can show up at any time and might not get the whole story, we have to be extra thoughtful,” Wallace says.

That’s not to say Wallace is opposed to re-imagining Shakespearean productions in contemporary political ways; last year, he directed a version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which the longstanding feud between the Montagues and Capulets is fueled by race.

In his director’s notes for the production, Wallace attributed the decision to “this contentious election and escalating rhetoric and violence.”

The company’s 2017 differing interpretations of “Julius Caesar” are also good examples.

Their touring school production (which took place long before the Public Theater’s version) featured the Roman elite as politicians in suits. This was often followed with discussion facilitated by school faculty about contemporary issues.

Meanwhile, the company’s mainstage production of Julius Caesar, which will premiere in Central Park in July, is a classic interpretation set in 45 B.C.

“I certainly didn’t have any specific, you know, political agenda, as I really never do in my work,” Wallace says. “But I think we do have a responsibility to honor the Shakespeare play and tell the truth through that play, through these timeless themes and ideas and issues.”