Theater & dance

Knives are out for theaters that bear the name ‘Shakespeare’

A production in New York’s Central Park has become a national flashpoint for its depiction of the stabbing assassination of its Trump-like title character.
Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via Associated Press
A production in New York’s Central Park has become a national flashpoint for its depiction of the stabbing assassination of its Trump-like title character.

The messages started pouring in earlier this week.

“Your play depicting the murder of our President is nothing but pure hatred,” read one of the tamer ones. 

“[H]ope you all who did this play about Trump are the first do [sic] die when ISIS COMES TO YOU [expletive] sumbags [sic],” read another.

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The senders were outraged over the Public Theater’s controversial staging of “Julius Caesar,” a production in New York’s Central Park that has become a national flashpoint for its depiction of the stabbing assassination of its Trump-like title character.

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But the e-mails went to the wrong place — Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., one of several Shakespeare companies around the country that have been inundated with a flood of venomous e-mails, phone messages, and social media posts condemning them for the Central Park production. 

The Lenox company has received roughly 40 such messages, including one that wished the theater “the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die.” At Shakespeare Dallas, executive and artistic director Raphael Parry says his company has received about 80 messages, including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater’s staff is “sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.”

Meanwhile, New York Classical Theatre, which performs in Central Park, has received a host of threatening messages, and Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., has received about a dozen caustic e-mails and numerous tweets accusing the company of inciting violence and linking it to this week’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice. 

“We just got slammed,” Parry said. “It’s pretty amazing the vitriol, the wishing we would die and our family would die. A whole lot of them say that we should burn in hell.”

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For the summer festivals — often leafy affairs for families, picnics, and a bit of Shakespeare under the stars — the venting has been a jarring reminder of the country’s political divisions. And while company directors say that Shakespeare, whose works are wildly adaptable to a variety of social contexts, is no stranger to controversy, the current maelstrom has taken their breath away.  

“You have to understand, we work primarily with a 400-year-old playwright: There’s been a lot of water over the dam,” said Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows. “I don’t know that it’s ever been this acute. We’ve had people express severe incredulity, but we’re in an environment now where the verbal gloves are off.”

New York’s Public Theater, whose staging of “Julius Caesar” features a title character in a telltale orangeish wig, long red tie, and unbuttoned overcoat, has been widely condemned in conservative circles, prompting corporate sponsors Delta Air Lines and Bank of America to withdraw their support. The play, a cautionary tale about the perils of power, has been adapted by various companies over the years to feature title characters reminiscent of Italian strongman Benito Mussolini and former presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

But the Trump depiction has hit a nerve, prompting the National Endowment for the Arts to distance itself from the production, and unleashing a powerful stream of invective against the Public, an off-Broadway darling that’s earned recent acclaim for helping to develop “Hamilton.”

“Neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination,” Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said during a preshow talk at a recent performance. “This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by nondemocratic means.”

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But the question remains: Why are these theater critics targeting regional companies that have nothing to do with the offending production?

“First of all, they clearly are not people who have seen the show or been to our theater,” said Michael Kahn, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I’m assuming that some letter’s gone out to a lot of people, and people got confused and decided to write to different Shakespeare theaters.”

Dallas’s Parry, whose company opened the summer season this week with a production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” blamed Web analytics. 

“They’re just doing a general Google search,” he said. “When you Google ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ in the Texas region, our name pops up first, and they just go to town.”

Burrows, whose Lenox company is preparing to stage Shakespeare’s comedy “Cymbeline,” had yet another theory.

“What might be gurgling up for them is their ire around having to do Shakespeare in high school,” he quipped. “They’re like, you know what? I never realized I hated my English teacher as much as I did.”

It also remains unclear why people have decided to target these companies in particular. Representatives for the Boston area’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and the Actors’ Shakespeare Project said their groups have not received any harassing messages. Similarly, representatives for Shakespeare companies in Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Oregon, and others said they had not been targeted, though some did report fiery messages on social media. 

“I didn’t even vote for Trump and I find this post deplorable,” one Facebook commenter wrote in response to an Oregon Shakespeare Festival statement supporting the Public. “It encourages violence, no matter the flourish you use to disguise it. Disgusting. It absolutely contributes to the problem. Theatre should bring people together, not cause division. You just lost a follower, volunteer and patron.”

To counter the tide, Shakespeare & Company has drafted a general statement in response to the missives, thanking senders for “engaging us in conversation” and clarifying that the company is not affiliated with the Public. 

“Shakespeare’s words are powerful,” the statement reads. “We understand not everyone will agree with certain interpretations of music, art, dance, or drama, but that is where important debate can emerge.”

At the bottom of the statement, the company includes a link to a synopsis of “Julius Caesar” “for your reference.”

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with Shakespeare in the Park and support their right to make art,” Burrows said. “We haven’t gotten a lot of responses to the statement.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay