Controversy in Central Park: Julius Caesar loses sponsors over Trump-like depiction

Delta Air Lines Inc. and Bank of America Corp pulled financial support on Sunday for the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York over its portrayal of the assassinated ancient Roman leader that resembles U.S. President Donald Trump.

Latest Shakespeare in the Park play 'takes onstage Trump-trolling to a startling new level,' says NY Times

Delta and Bank of America are pulling their sponsorship of The Public Theater's new production of Julius Caesar in Central Park due to its depiction of the title character as a Donald Trump look-alike in a business suit who gets knifed to death onstage. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater/Associated Press)

The knives are out for a new edgy production of Julius Caesar that's cutting a little too close to home for some fans of the White House.

Delta Air Lines and Bank of America have pulled their sponsorship of The Public Theater's version of Julius Caesar that portrays a Donald Trump-like dictator in a business suit with a long tie who gets knifed to death onstage.

The Public refused to back down on Monday, saying in a statement that it stands "completely behind" the production. It noted that its staging has "provoked heated discussion" but that "such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theatre; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy."

Other defenders included Scott M. Stringer, the New York City comptroller, who sarcastically tweeted to both Delta and Bank of America: "What a mistake. Actually reading Julius Caesar might help in the future. Your copy is in the mail."

This modern-day Caesar's violent death at the hands of conspirators comes not long after comedian Kathy Griffin was widely condemned for posing for a photograph in which she gripped a bloodied rendering of Trump's head.

Backlash was swift

Though the Public's version of William Shakespeare's classic play is unchanged from its 400-year-old original, the production portrays Caesar with a gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife. Trump's name is never mentioned but backlash was swift.

The 'artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.'- Delta

On Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a Fox News story about the play and wrote, "I wonder how much of this 'art' is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does 'art' become political speech & does that change things?"

Delta responded by saying "artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste." American Express, which in the past has sponsored productions at the Public's downtown theatre, said it is not a sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park or this production of Julius Caesar, adding: "We do not condone this interpretation of the play."

Bank of America claimed it was bamboozled. It said the Public chose to present the play "to provoke and offend" without the bank's knowledge: "Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it."

Julius Caesar ends its run Sunday. The comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream begins in the park on July 11 under the direction of Lear deBessonet.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which Trump once proposed eliminating, said in a statement that while the Public's Shakespeare programing has received its grants in the past, none were awarded for Julius Caesar or for funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts' grant for the Public.

'You've got to know what you're getting into'

Theatre-lovers were quick to point out that a national tour of Julius Caesar in 2012 by The Acting Company featured a Caesar played by a black actor in a modern business suit who had a resemblance to then-President Barack Obama. Sponsors of the Guthrie Theater apparently had no objections — including Delta — when that show landed in Minneapolis.

The Public has long protected its role as incubator of provocative and challenging works, unafraid to mount plays that comment on current events or update Shakespearian plays to explore modern themes.

It's had Trump in its sights before. The Public is the same institution that birthed the megahit Hamilton — whose cast members last year implored then-Vice-President elect Mike Pence to support diversity— and where Meryl Streep donned self-tanner and a fat suit last summer to impersonate Trump at a gala fundraiser.

Laurence Maslon, an administrator and arts professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, said it was disingenuous for large corporations who have backed the Public for years — and enjoyed co-opting its downtown cool vibe — to sound alarmed now.

"You've got to know what you're getting into," he said, adding that the Public has "50 years of the most provocative, politically engaged work. It's called the Public Theater for a reason." He backed the theatre's artistic director Oskar Eustis, saying "Oskar is nothing if not brave."

Just one of the on stage takes on Trump

Maslon thinks any loss of funding the Public experiences from corporate defectors will be compensated for by donations from liberal grass-roots groups and people worried about the apparent threat to artistic freedom.

"I think it will probably energize the base," he said. "I can imagine any sense that this political regime is imposing a kind of censorship and the free market can help correct it will probably be good for the Public. It will probably be a healthy thing, too."

The Public isn't the only theatre project trying to address the advent of Trump. On Broadway, Jon Jon Briones, who plays the sleazy Engineer in a revival of Miss Saigon, makes a sarcastic reference to the Trump campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again."

The recent off-Broadway, the play Building the Wall, by playwright Robert Schenkkan, imagined the country under Trump's campaign promise to detain immigrants living in the country illegally. And filmmaker and activist Michael Moore is also bringing a one-man show taking on Trump to Broadway this summer.