NEW YORK — The Public Theater is refusing to back down after backlash over its production of "Julius Caesar" that portrays a Donald Trump-like dictator in a business suit with a long tie who gets knifed to death onstage.
Delta Air Lines and Bank of America have pulled their sponsorship of the Public's version of the play, but in a statement Monday the theater said it stands behind the production. It noted its staging has "provoked heated discussion" but "such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy."
Other defenders included Scott M. Stringer, the New York City comptroller, who wrote letters to the heads of Delta and Bank of America, arguing that dropping their support "sends the wrong message." He writes: "Art matters. The First Amendment matters. Expression matters." He enclosed copies of the play with the letters.
"I hope you enjoy it — it is a classic, in any age," he wrote.
Before Monday night's performance, the play's director, Oskar Eustis, delivered a statement, which he urged audience members to record on their cellphones.
"Neither Shakespeare nor The Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems and certainly not assassination," he said.
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.
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.
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."
Bank of America 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.
The National Endowment for the Arts, which Trump, a Republican, once proposed eliminating, said that while the Public's Shakespeare programing has received its grants in the past none was awarded for "Julius Caesar" or for funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts' grant for the Public.
Theater 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, a Democrat. Sponsors of the Guthrie Theater, including Delta, apparently had no objections 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. It's the institution that birthed the megahit "Hamilton," whose cast members last year implored 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.