Shakespeare & Company brought into 'Julius Caesar' fray

Allyn Burrows, Artistic Director at Shakespeare and Company at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox. Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

LENOX — Shakespeare & Company has found itself on the receiving end of a string of angry messages about a production of "Julius Caesar" that culminates in the murder of a character who bears a striking resemblance to President Donald Trump.

The torrent of emails and telephone calls are misguided, however: The production is being staged by the Public Theater in New York City.

Allyn Burrows, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, said Sunday he wasn't sure Trump was the most apt influence for the depiction of Caesar, but he said that the Lenox troupe is supporting the New York-based organization nonetheless.

"We stand in solidarity with them about the freedom of expression and one's right to do art," Burrows said.

Since the play opened on June 12 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Shakespeare & Company has fielded about 60 messages — despite having no involvement in the performance, Burrows told The Eagle. He suspects Google search results are contributing to the confusion.

On Friday, The Boston Globe reported that Shakespeare & Company was one of many theatrical groups around the U.S. to field such messages fueled by the Public Theater's portrayal of Caesar, which has drawn comparisons to Trump because of the character's dress and physical appearance.

The production has sparked outrage from some who view it as promoting political violence due to Caesar's murder during the drama.

At a performance Friday night, two protesters were removed from the audience for disrupting a scene, according to published reports. One of the protesters, later identified as Laura Loomer, rushed the stage and said, "Stop the normalization of political violence against the right. This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump."

Though Shakespeare & Company often hears from people who are upset about a particular performance or decision, Burrows said receiving messages with this level of vitriol is unprecedented for the Lenox group. The communications have primarily been sent to the organization's general email inbox.

"Your play depicting the murder of our president is nothing but pure hatred. You are vial (sic) despicable excuses for human beings. I wish you all the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die. F--- YOU!!!" wrote a particularly incensed critic in one of the eight messages that Burrows shared with The Eagle via email.

Others have been tamer. "I really believed that art was one way to bring people together, however, your play depicting the president of the United States being murdered and the press it has generated, regardless of political preference, has widened the break between our people. I'm ashamed of you," another critic wrote.

Burrows said Shakespeare & Company has been responding to the communications by phone and email.

Regardless of the messages' tenor, Burrows feels that their senders are misguided.

"They have to realize that Caesar is a cautionary tale about what happens when you create a vacuum of power, so it's not a directive," he said. "When we do these plays, it's about asking questions. It's not about directing anyone to do anything. It's actually about probing more.

"Caesar was a ruler; Trump is a ruler, and it just so happens that a 400-year-old playwright still resonates today, and some direct parallels were drawn," Burrows said. He also cited a 2012 version of the play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis that drew its inspiration for Caesar from President Barack Obama as an example of the play's broad applications.

Burrows said that the criticism of the Public Theater's "Julius Caesar" is yet another consequence of the country's political polarization, a divide he would like to see bridged.

"We don't all have to go holding hands down the lane with each other," he said, "but we should recognize that we're all just trying to live on this planet, and language is one of the vehicles that can do that."

Shakespeare & Company has had internal meetings about the messages to reassure actors and staff, but it has no plans to alter its future programs, according to Burrows.

"We've circled up a lot around this because when you're a company that wants to enlist dialog, we do it internally and externally," he said, "and we want to ask everyone to just stay calm and carry on, just as the English say."