How do we explain the meteoric rise of Donald Trump on the political stage?

The GOP political hopeful has been able to translate his remarkable pop-culture appeal into electoral power.

Forget the polls and the pundits. Perhaps the best way to understand is to watch Shakespeare's tale of another man who entered politics after first becoming an immensely popular cult figure: Julius Caesar.

It just so happens that one of the best Shakespeare companies in the country, will premiere a new production of Julius Caesar on Wednesday on the campus of DeSales University in Lehigh County.

Starring Keith Hamilton Cobb (All My Children, Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda) in the title role, the production by the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) will be staged through July 17.

It's part of the 25th anniversary season of PSF, which opened last week with West Side Story (it runs through July 3). PSF will offer two other Shakespeare productions this summer: The Taming of the Shrew (July 13-Aug. 7) and Love's Labour's Lost (July 27-Aug. 7).

The season also will include productions of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (July 21-Aug. 7) and a special family show, Shakespeare for Kids (July 27-Aug. 6).

A legacy

PSF was founded in 1992 on the DeSales University campus in Center Valley by Father Gerard J. Schubert, a Philadelphia-born educator who was chair of the performing and fine arts department at DeSales from 1969 through 1998. A member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales for 65 years, Father Schubert died on Dec. 6 at the age of 84.

"During its first year, Father Schubert directed Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew," PSF producing artistic director Patrick Mulcahy told me during a recent visit to PSF.

Since its first production, PSF has produced 28 of Shakespeare's 38 plays. The goal, Mulcahy said, is to go through the entire oeuvre, taking care not to repeat the same play for at least a decade.

"We set a goal in 2009 that in 20 years we would become a world-class theater," said Mulcahy. "You might be able to find a more opulent theater somewhere else, but you may not find a better one."

Mulcahy said PSF doesn't try to revolutionize or update Shakespeare.

"Innovation is important to us, but . . . our fundamental goal is the quality of the work," he said. "We try to dig deeper to achieve Beauty with a capital 'B,' the beauty philosophers talk about."

PSF's back-to-basics approach, which emphasizes Shakespeare's language, has won the group a large following.

"Audiences have loved it," said Mulcahy. Since his arrival in 2003, he said, the festival has seen attendance grow from 20,000 to 38,000 last year, "through a season that lasts just 91/2 weeks."

PSF isn't only a refuge for fans of Shakespeare. Performers say it's an oasis.

"PSF is unique because it's just such a great environment," said Marnie Schulenburg, who will be featured as the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost. This is her third season in a row with PSF.

"The [performance] space is incredible and the energy here is great," Schulenburg said. "The directors and designers they bring in are incredible, and there's such a great collaborative feel here - and every year you feel like you are returning to a family of artists."

For Cobb, 54, PSF represents a return to his first passion in the theater. He trained in classical theater, graduating from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 1987. But he found it hard to support himself by sticking with Shakespeare.

"The problem for a young actor was that only so much of it was being produced," he said, "and you are competing with everyone else for those roles."

After spending 12 years in Hollywood, Cobb said, he was delighted for an opportunity to do Shakespeare again.

A 'Caesar' for today

Julius Caesar will be directed by Mulcahy, who has set the play in an unspecified futuristic milieu.

"It's a postmodern approach where we will borrow elements from our time period with a little bit of the imagined future and ancient Rome," he said. "The play isn't about a period. The plot is about a period. But the play itself is about power and how we negotiate power along with other human needs like belonging and love."

Greg Wood, who plays Cassius, said the power play staged by characters such as Marc Antony, Brutus, and Octavius, who all are vying to lead Rome, will be familiar to students of politics. The games don't change that much from one era to another, he said.

Julius Caesar plays with the idea that politicians are actors. The main characters use performance - they deliver speeches, appear at funerals and other public events - to gain popularity. Popularity, in turn, buys them power.

Rosalyn Coleman, who plays Julius Caesar's wife Calpurnia, said the audiences are likely to notice echoes of the present in the play.

Cobb "looks so much like Barack [Obama]," said Coleman. Both she and her costar are African American. "We are playing the husband and wife as a power couple. My job is to try to protect him privately.

As his third wife, Coleman said, "Calpurnia needs to be someone who is as strong as Caesar. She's the one he plans to be with until death."

To the extreme

One of PSF's most distinctive offerings is the "Extreme Shakespeare" presentation of Taming of the Shrew.

"I think this is the closest we get to how plays were produced during Shakespeare's time," said Mulcahy. "There's no director. The actors do all their preparations themselves and come in with their lines learned. Instead of rehearsing for weeks, they have 41/2 days to pull everything together."

That includes all the blocking, the props and costumes.

Then they throw themselves into the production.

"It sounds terrifying, and it is," said Mulcahy. "But a lot of the actors find it really freeing."

He added, "That's the way theater was done for millennia."




The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Through Aug. 7 at Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University,

2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley. 610-282-9455,