AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here's how Shakespeare can still be controversial in 2017 - when one of the country's most influential theaters presents Julius Caesar in a business suit, a red tie and a blond comb-over. So why is that a problem for New York's Public Theater? Well, if you can't quite remember the play - spoiler alert - Caesar is stabbed to death. Delta and Bank of America have pulled sponsorship.
Jeff Lunden is with us at our New York bureau. Hey there, Jeff.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So just to set the scene, The Public Theater puts on these free Shakespeare plays in Central Park every summer. This is the Shakespeare in the Park. You've seen this play. How explicit is the connection to the president?
LUNDEN: It is very explicit. The moment Julius Caesar walks on stage, as you've mentioned, you see this blond comb-over, this long, red tie. And his wife, Calpurnia, is elegantly dressed. And the moment she speaks, there's a Slavic accent. And the audience actually laughs initially. They staged it to make it very clear that this Caesar is supposed to be President Trump.
CORNISH: As I've mentioned, Delta and Bank of America have pulled out. But there's also been criticism from Trump's family - right? - and from the conservative media. What's going on?
LUNDEN: Well, as readers of the play know, Caesar is stabbed to death on stage. And this particular interpretation is bloody and violent. And that got picked up by Breitbart about a week ago. And then yesterday morning on "Fox And Friends," it was discussed. And it was followed with a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. And he wrote, I wonder how much of this, quote, "art" is funded by taxpayers.
Breitbart actually got the plot of the play wrong. They wrote that Julius Caesar dies at the end. He actually dies in the middle of the play. And that's what starts a civil war. Very shortly after that, funding was pulled from Delta Airlines and Bank of America.
CORNISH: And Jeff, you received a statement today from The Public Theater saying it stands by this production. It goes on to say, our production of "Julius Caesar" in no way advocates violence towards anyone. And this is something you already heard from the theater before this latest criticism, right?
LUNDEN: That's right. Oskar Eustis, who's the artistic director of The Public and also the director of this production, addressed this very issue before funding was pulled. He was on WNYC.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OSKAR EUSTIS: If you see the show, there is nothing funny about the assassination. There is nothing positive about the assassination. Brutus is hoping that this assassination will be seen as a liberation. And the moment the knives come out, it's a butchery. And there is no gloating over Caesar's death. There's nothing funny about Caesar being assassinated. It is nothing but a horrible, tragic event that leads to terrible results. So I don't have a moment of thinking I'm promoting assassination as a technique or making light of the murder of a leader of a country, not at all.
CORNISH: This is not the first time that Shakespeare has gotten the modern political treatment, right, Jeff?
LUNDEN: That's right. You very often see Shakespeare reflected in whatever the contemporary moment is. So just in recent history, the Actors Company did a very well-reviewed production of "Julius Caesar" where the title character was clearly meant to be Barack Obama. And even farther back in the 1930s, Orson Welles did a famous production where Julius Caesar was Mussolini.
CORNISH: How big a deal is this for The Public Theater? Will this funding be a problem for them?
LUNDEN: The short answer is probably yes. Delta is listed in the program as donating between a hundred thousand and $500,000 to the company. Bank of America donates even more. Although, they've only pulled support for this particular production. But there are many other funders of The Public - The New York Times, Bloomberg, other foundations. And of course, The Public is where "Hamilton" started. And they get an income stream from the three productions of that show that are touring across the country. But ultimately this is going to affect what Free Shakespeare in the Park is about. It costs a lot of money to put on these plays, and it's free for everyone.
CORNISH: Jeff Lunden reporting to us from New York. Jeff, thanks so much.
LUNDEN: Thank you, Audie.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE ONE AND MF DOOM'S "TRAP DOOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.