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BWW Exclusive: My Riotous Night at JULIUS CAESAR

BWW Exclusive: My Riotous Night at JULIUS CAESARI find controversy delicious. As an avid theatre goer, there are very few times when I enter a theater with no preconceptions about what I'm about to see. Whether it's just the gossip I've heard around or the ads that I skip after 5 seconds on YouTube, I usually have some prior knowledge about the subject matter. This was especially true when I went into the Delacorte Theater to see the Public's production of Julius Caesar. I learned of Oskar Eustis' choice to make the play explicitly politically relevant when I heard about Delta and Bank of America pulling their sponsorships. As someone who sees herself as a socially active artist, I got excited.

Approaching the theater, I saw a collection of protesters behind a lone line of barricades south of the theatre with creative signs such as "Boo the Cast." As a New Yorker, I'm familiar with the image; as someone who often participates in protests, it was interesting being on the calmer side of those barricades.

I saw the show with both my parents and two friends. Sandwiched between them, we discussed the set, the environment, and our expectations as my father declared multiple times that this would be "a historic performance." Both the audience and The Public were clearly aware of the controversy the show had been creating. Flipping through the program there were two inserts. One said:

" #WeAreOnePublic

The Public Theatre stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.

Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare's play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park."

The other stated:

"Over the years, The Public Theater has received project funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for specific productions; however, no public funding from the NEA has been provided in support of Julius Caesar."

Oskar Eustis is an amazing director. That's just my opinion. I enjoy his work, and I was excited by the use of the theater as actors running up and down the aisles and onto the stage blurred the lines between art and life, spectator and participant. (The soothsayer, for example, emerged from the audience in a mask directly addressing Caesar.) The title character enters and the liberal audience erupted with a range from giggles to cartoonish guffawing, myself included. Seeing an orange man with a tie pointing to his junk is a funny thing to me. In the moment, I was just enjoying a performance from the comfort and security of my seat. The greatest disturbances were how fitting some of Cassius' accusations of Caesar were for the current president and how eerily similar Caesar's ego and affect on the Roman people was to POTUS's.

BWW Exclusive: My Riotous Night at JULIUS CAESARI (along with anyone else who has looked at the back of a Newman's Caesar Dressing bottle) am familiar with the tale of Julius Caesar. He dies a brutal death. It's bad, but definitely not the worst Shakespearean death (Titus Andronicus is filled with vomit inducing moments), debatably, not even the worst in the play (Portia swallows fire). Nevertheless, the death scene begins and tensions grow among the actors and the audience as we all wait for the first knife to make a human sheath out of Julius Caesar. Then the stabbings, "et tu Brutus?" and he dies.

Now as a dead Caesar lies in a puddle of his own blood, a little, blonde, white lady rushes the stage "STOP THE NORMALIZATION OF POLITICAL VIOLENCE AGAINST THE RIGHT!" At this moment (I am both proud and ashamed to say), I was bothered by the lack of vocal support from this performer, especially amidst this amazing performance. She sounded like she was straining and her stage presence just wasn't up there with the rest of the actors'. "THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE-" she was cut off by a stage manager over the god mic saying, "Alright ladies and gentleman, we're going to pause. We're going to pause," as I realized that Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar, had actually lifted himself slightly up off the floor- now apparently very much alive. I heard people muttering around me asking each other if this was part of the show and it became quickly apparent that it in fact was not.

Then booing from the audience began. It was a regular Shakespearean moment; I was almost expecting the rotten tomatoes to start flying as the stage manager continued on the mic, "Security. Security, please." Security quickly and effectively removed her from the stage as actors wielding fake daggers tried to defuse the situation. Henry continued to lie in his blood puddle. "YOU CAN NOT PROMOTE THIS KIND OF VIOLENCE AGAINST Donald Trump!" I could hear her as she continued to scream "SHAME! SHAAAAME!" from outside the theatre. If that weren't exciting enough, another person, this time a white man (keeping it diverse) popped up in the audience and began screaming "YOU'RE ALL GOEBBELS," (referencing Hitler's Minister of Propaganda) and accusing the booing audience of being Nazis. He was also removed. But as the saying goes "The show must go on," and it did. The stage manager came back over the god mic, thanked the audience, and cued the actors to take it from the lines "Liberty! Freedom!" After a lengthy standing ovation, the play went on as usual.

As I said before, I find controversy delightful; discourse and interruptions are some of my favorite things to engage in. That said, I don't like them during theatrical events. I've found the breaking of theatrical illusion deeply unsettling since I was 11 years old watching Gypsy and Patti LuPone stopped "Rose's Turn" to berate an audience member for taking pictures. When the woman rushed the stage, she broke the kind of sanctity of the space. The stage is a special place in the theatre. Magical things happen in that space and suddenly expression was being stifled. Beyond this though, the people emerging from the audience, which was charming before, suddenly became terrifying.

Julius Caesar, like most Shakespearean tragedies, ends with a series of deaths, leaving the stage with a slew of dead bodies on it by the end of the play. Every person who popped up in the audience suddenly became a threat. The fake gun pops of Marc Antony's firing squad suddenly became reason for concern of bodily harm- a tense reminder of the the country's growing laundry list of shootings (most recent at the time, the shooting of Steve Scalise). It was difficult not to remember the amped up security outside the theatre and announcements that they were checking "all bags" before that night's performance.

I'm an overthinker. Whether it's sending in the final touches of a piece, making a decision about what to have for dinner, or sending a text back, I tend to dive into the deepest level of analysis I can, often to my own detriment. In this instance my overthinking sent me into a spiral of Shakespeare, art, and politics which I am still thinking of 5 days later.

The concept of the character Julius Caesar being more a general symbol of power than the actual historical figure Julius Caesar wasn't a foreign one to me. Heading into the performance, I remembered studying the play in school and learning the history of it. Shakespeare wrote "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar" around 1599. Meaning that as the play was being written and performed, Queen Elizabeth I was in her final years (she died in 1603), and since she had no heir, those being ruled by her were concerned about where the country would end up after her impending death. Shakespeare, using ancient Roman politics to express his current audience's concerns, reflected current political uncertainty. Shakespeare is infamous for this kind of allusion. Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar" after he had written a series of English histories focussed on royals and politics. Historians speculate references in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Richard II" to Elizabeth I and "Macbeth" to King James I, to cite a few.

All this to say, I understood and almost expected the not so subtle allusions to the U.S. president and his administration. There were productions of Julius Caesar featuring many a politician just as there had been productions of Richard III doing the same. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis had a production featuring a tall black man as Caesar referencing President Barack Obama. The versatility of Shakespeare's characters are arguably one of the reasons his plays continue to be performed year after year.

BWW Exclusive: My Riotous Night at JULIUS CAESAR

This woman, however, seemed to be under the misconception that the politicalization of theatre is a new trend. The (often not-so-lowkey) references to those in power had to be done discreetly during Shakespeare's time, in order for the show to be approved and licensed by the Master of Revels. No show could be performed without this license. The Master of Revels served as a serious form censorship; if an unlicensed or censored piece was performed, the theatre troupe performing it could receive a whopping fine or even be thrown in prison. Freedom of speech is such a treasured American right which allows shows like The Public's Julius Caesar (as well as 90% of current topical comedy) to exist. Though Shakespeare's plays have outlived the Master of Revels, over 400 years after they were written, it appears they still face censorship.

Whether or not you liked a performance and consequently praising or condemning it to your friends is sometimes more enjoyable than the show itself. However, these protesters didn't even wait for the performance to end. Also, Julius Caesar as a play does not encourage assassination! Everyone who stabbed Caesar dies. Half of Rome literally turns against them and the empire falls into civil war. Cassius, who organizes the murder, kills himself because he thinks he sent his best friend to his death, then it's revealed that his friend is in fact alive, so Cassius killed himself for no reason. Brutus kills himself after his wife commits suicide by eating fire, and the rest of the senators are murdered by Antony and Octavius Caesar. If someone, after sitting through the entirety of the play, leaves and thinks assassinating a leader for the perceived greater good is a smart plan, they definitely fell asleep before the end and then pretended they were awake through the last two acts. The program insert says it all, "Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save."

Even as I left the theatre I noticed myself dissecting the protest. Who was this lady? Why'd she rush the stage? I heard what she said but maybe I heard wrong? She wasn't particularly clear with her enunciation and security was speedy. More research was needed.

I got home and, though I was curious, I went to sleep. I didn't want to give whoever this mystery lady was any more attention than she already had. However, my Will Power wavers, as my many failed diets and cleanses can attest to. I sat at my computer and got messages from more and more people about if I was at the performance with "the protesters." One person sent me an article asking, "Was this the performance you were at?" Just as I concede to $1 pizza when I told myself I was going to have a salad, I suddenly found myself down a rabbit hole of articles and Twitter accounts about these protestors.

The woman's video is actually much longer than her brief moments on stage. I watched all 18 minutes and 9 seconds so you don't have to. While watching the performance, as soon as I realized that this protester wasn't part of the show, I took note of the fact that both she and her partner in protest were white. In a time when videos of black and latinx people being attacked and murdered by police have become so regular that it becomes difficult to keep track of who we're mourning for, I was struck but not surprised by the confidence with which this white woman stormed the stage. There was a little part of me hoping, as she was escorted off, that she was a misguided pacifist, enthusiastic about preventing any and all forms of violence against people, maybe even a vegan. As I watched her video it became more and more evident that this was not the case. She yelled at the officers trying to move her off the property. She shouted things like "[the audience] join terrorist organizations like black lives matter and they shoot police officers!" and "so you're choosing to align yourself with terrorists. Actual terrorists. actual. Terrorists."

I wondered if she was aware of the privilege of her comfort, her ability to scream in the faces of police without fearing for her life or wellbeing. Earlier that day the officer who killed Philando Castile just over a year before was acquitted of all charges. She was ready to be arrested and become a martyr doing what she believed was right and necessary. "Stand up for what's right, don't fear the consequences." She knew she was going to rush the stage and be escorted off. It took almost 20 minutes of yelling and disobeying police for them to arrest her. She was taken into custody calmly and appropriately, something that isn't afforded to some people, like FrEddie Gray who died in police custody in 2015. She screams quite a few things in her video to her followers. "The New York City Public Theatre is ISIS! Kathy Griffin is ISIS and CNN is ISIS! All you guys act like muslim terrorists when you take the knife to somebody's throat!... You are all political terrorists! ALL OF YOU!" she cried at the theatre.

Watching the video was an interesting and disturbing experience. I found myself wanting to supply the answers to some of her questions. "WHY DID THEY STAB HIM? WHY DID THEY KILL HIM ON STAGE?" Because that's how Shakespeare wrote it. However, the video was live streamed, so there were people watching and commenting on the video as it was happening. "Stop saying "read the play" as an excuse LIBTARTS" commented one user @bigly_winning, so I guess even if i could respond to her, my answers wouldn't be the ones she wanted. A lot of things seemed to confuse her. It was quite apparent that she didn't realize the play does not condone violence. She seemed particularly concerned with the language of cutting off the head and not hacking the limbs, metaphorically, during the senators' debate over Antony's life. "They're talking about how they're gonna cut off the limbs off of Caesar. Hello? Uh. Who cuts the limbs off of people? Oh yeah. ISIS." Her rhetoric is intellectual, yet ineloquent on execution- not quite Shakespeare. The video is filled with a lot of heavy breathing, fumbling around, and re-angling. Beyond a lot of hate speech, it wasn't particularly captivating. "They're just as bad as ISIS. Just as bad. They have become ISIS." It is unclear whether she is speaking about The Public, everyone in the theatre, or all liberals, but it is clear that she's passionate.

The irony of someone trying to shut down a performance because they disagree with the content shouldn't be lost on anyone. This production of Julius Caesar wasn't one everyone was going to agree with, but to attempt to silence another person's art is not the way to go about taking issue with it. This is especially true when you don't fully know what you're shutting down. In this instance, our misguided protester wasn't as familiar with the content as she should have been. In her video she announces you must make "sacrifices for your country," as she notes waking up at 5am to get tickets. By all means, wake up at whatever time you see fit in service of your country (that isn't my business) but in a place where our ability to create this kind of art is often taken for granted, think about what you're doing before you try to muzzle it.

The Public's performance of Julius Caesar is a testament to what we're able to do in New York City. The show was packed with a range of talented and diverse actors. Under Eustis' hand a production breathed new life into a classical piece to be enjoyed and discussed by those of us fortunate enough to be see it and be included. These exchanges of thoughts and feelings and the ability to express them are what allow our democracy to exist. As said in the program "discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is basis of a healthy democracy." Perhaps our little protester, had she any knowledge of the play, would find a great many similarities between herself and Brutus. They both behave under the notion that denying democracy for the greater good is worth the sacrifice. I wish she stayed until the end of the show to see that that doesn't really work out.


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From This Author Leah Lane