(Recasts with Public Theater statement)
By Gina Cherelus and Laila Kearney
NEW YORK, June 12 (Reuters) - New York’s Public Theater on Monday defended its production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that portrays the assassinated Roman leader as U.S. President Donald Trump after Delta Air Lines Inc and Bank of America Corp pulled their funding.
The nonprofit theater said it recognized that its contemporary staging of the play, which portrays Caesar as a magnetic, blond businessman with a gold bathtub, had provoked heated debate. Actors and other artists threatened on Monday to boycott the two companies that ended their sponsorship.
"Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater," it said in a statement.
"Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save," the theater said.
Delta and Bank of America ended their support of the production on Sunday, hours after Trump's son Donald Jr. questioned in a tweet whether it was art or political speech.
"Disappointed in @Delta for turning its back on free expression. I've flown many thousands of miles with you. No more," tweeted Beau Willimon, an American playwright and creator of the popular Netflix series "House of Cards."
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates tweeted that she would see the play "in thrilled defiance of ignorant would-be censors."
Actor Ron Perlman, known for his big-screen depiction of "Hellboy," also condemned the two former sponsors.
"Act accordingly," Perlman told his followers on Twitter.
On Sunday, Delta Air Lines said it pulled its support because the production "crossed the line on the standards of good taste," while Bank of America said the play was presented in a manner intended to provoke and offend.
"Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it," the bank's statement said.
The two companies also received support on social media.
"Kudos to @Delta for pulling $$ from 'play' portraying assassination of @POTUS," former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican whose daughter is deputy White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter. "No one should sponsor crap like that!"
The National Endowment for the Arts said in a statement that while it had given the New York Shakespeare Festival $320,000 over the past four years, no NEA funds were awarded to support the Public Theater's production of "Julius Caesar."
American Express Co, which calls itself "the official card of The Public Theater," said on Monday it did not support this version of "Julius Caesar," but did not say if it would drop funding.
"The Public Theater puts on many shows. Our sponsorship does not go toward the funding of the production of Shakespeare in the Park and we do not condone this interpretation of the play," American Express said in a statement.
Comedian Kathy Griffin faced a backlash in recent weeks after posing for a photograph with a fake severed and bloodied head resembling Trump.
After images were published on social media, Griffin lost sponsorships and jobs, including co-host of CNN's New Year's Eve coverage.
Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker